We Write to Heal Our Wounds: A Conversation with Michelle Otero

Shona Casey interviews Michelle Otero about her memoir, Vessels: A Memoir of Borders, for Blue Mesa Review.

Next to me someone asks, “What inspired the order of your book?” Michelle Otero smiles broadly and explains that she had a bunch of pieces written but didn’t know the order. She felt it was important to acknowledge the trauma and recreate that sense. She tells us of a curanderismo course she participates in and the ceremony of the four directions, how that resonated with her as she wandered through the memories, the order making sense to her path. She speaks of throwing her writings up in the air and letting them fall, picking up the pieces as felt right. She wishes she could be like Tony Stark and move her ideas around on translucent panels before her face… but she is not, so she makes do with note cards pasted to sliding glass doors. Ultimately she says the structure came from Spirit and remarks that her chapter title “El Ombligo”, the navel, is her journey back to herself. This feels fitting after the journey we’ve taken through her writing.

It’s a bright warm morning on Friday, November 3rd, 2023 and I am sitting in Greg Martin’s Intermediate Creative Non Fiction course. Our group of aspiring writers is lucky enough to be gathered around Michelle Otero, Poet Laureate of Albuquerque from 2018-2020, professional coach and published writer. We are discussing her most recent publication, Vessels: A Memoir of Borders. In this story Michelle pulls the reader through memories of her life and allows us to walk with her in visions of her ancestors. We meet her family: her grandparents, parents and one of her brothers. We travel with her on the long bus ride through Mexico. We see her as a published author struggling with how sharing her truth created separation with family. We join a circle of sacred women and experience the helplessness one feels when abuse is happening right before our face. In each moment she manages to effortlessly pull us in with deep descriptions of objects, places, conversations and feelings.

In her writing, she works to make sense of the past: the love, the connection, the hurt, the abuse, the pain. The reader witnesses Michelle’s own self-doubt and struggles with worthiness. It is a journey searching on the surface for what it means to love but truly looking at what it means to heal through the pulling apart of self and learning to love each piece, trust it, and protect it.

Michelle shares that she had the title very early on. She explains that vessels can be simple; they don’t have to be ornate. They can be made of clay and after a time can crumble back into the earth. They speak to blood and ties and conveying from one side of a border to another. She challenges us to consider, “What do I hold? What do I let go? What should remain?” She reminds us that a vessel can carry inheritance, ultimately suggesting that what we choose to carry, we pass on.

Her characters are offered upon the page with an abundance of love and compassion wound intricately with flaws, hurts and misfortune. “Write with great love and that will show up on the page,” Michelle tells us. She credits this lesson to Sandra Cisneros, fellow strong voice, educator and famous Chicana writer and poet. Honesty is the most important thing; it means warts and all. Michelle describes the women of her family sitting around the table talking about her grandmother. The stories carry the most dreadful things and yet there is laughter in remembering them. If there is an elephant in the room, it is better to address it with love. It is a service you do for your character to tell the truth. She gives the example of her grandfather who suffers with PTSD from his time at war. Often PTSD is seen as a badge of heroism for time in service of one’s country, but it lacks taking account for what it continues to cost the survivor. It doesn’t dive into the deeper effects or the truth that it is not okay to be left so broken.

There are moments she admits that it was hard to be the one who was doing the work of self-reflection and such deep personal healing. “Why do I always have to be the one?” she grumbles but then she smirks and quickly states she would much rather be the one who is capable of this work and for that she is thankful. “My perfectionist is a slacker,” she laughs, referring to healing and listening to all the sides of oneself. She encourages us to give each side of ourselves an opportunity and to be curious about our shadows, allowing them to show up even if they are the guest we didn’t invite. We are reminded there is no end point of healing but that it is a journey. You can feel more resilient through time but there will be moments when things still flatten you. She tells us that over time she has built “vast reservoirs of joy” to pull from, a beautiful note that mirrors the hopeful ending to her memoir.

In Vessels, Michelle Otero lays herself down in front of us with gaping wounds, asks us to share with her, and makes it clear that there is no easy way through. She writes, “You want me to say that each of us undoes the damage, finds a way to live, creates her way out of misery. We write to heal our wounds.” Michelle’s book is a testament to the power of words and the journey of self-discovery.

Vessels: A Memoir of Borders was published in 2023 by Flowersong Press. It can be purchased locally in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the following locations:


Albuquerque Museum Store

Or nationwide through:


Barnes & Noble

Writer’s Bio: Shona Casey is a Native New Mexican with Scottish blood and proud mother of two wildly adventurous young men. She is weeks away from completing her BA at the University of New Mexico with a major in Intercultural Communications and a minor in English Literature. She is a seasoned business owner who has published many technical documents but dreams of creative writing, editing and publishing. She is currently on the staff at Blue Mesa Review and thoroughly enjoying her newfound creative community.

Eat a Peach: a refreshing take on the celebrity memoir

Jordyn Bachmann, undergraduate reader, writes her review of David Chang’s book for Blue Mesa Review.

“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.”

T.S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

World-renowned chef David Chang—best known for founding Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York—released his memoir titled Eat a Peach in 2020, detailing his life thus far and the origin story of his multitude of successes in the culinary world. This memoir, co-written by food writer Gabe Ulla, is deeply personal, with Chang exploring the dark, unappetizing parts of his life story in conjunction with his other food endeavors, such as restaurants Ssäm and Ko, giving the reader a rare, up-close look at the ugliness, goodness, and overall chaos that the restaurant business has to offer.

What makes Chang’s memoir stand out, however, is not so much the structure or the content itself, but his ability to connect to the audience in authentic, tangible ways that most celebrity memoirs seem to lack. Chang’s self-awareness, mistakes, transparency, and humanness appear seen in every chapter of this memoir. He admits to being wrong, misguided, and sometimes brutish and stupid, all traits that Chang does not shy away from taking responsibility for. He expresses an understanding of what it is to truly hit rock bottom: to push the boulder up the hill again and again, even when it repeatedly chases you back down to where you started.

Eat a Peach couldn’t be more true David Chang if it tried. As an avid fan of his many endeavors in the culinary world, I consider myself well versed on how Chang presents his narratives and the voice he employs to explore them. Even with Chang’s TV shows—Ugly Delicious on Netflix and The Next Thing You Eat on Hulu — his personality, humor, and knowledge breaks through whatever script he’s reading from. The title Eat a Peach comes from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, which tells of the plight of an emotionally-stunted and narcissistic man, but also references a failed food magazine started by Chang titled “Lucky Peach” that he details further in his story, adding multiple layers of meaning and ironicism to the title. Because of Eat a Peach’s dedication to being unflinching, unfettered, and uncomfortable, the vulnerability happening throughout the book is moving and personal, demonstrating that Chang’s uncharted territory in the culinary industry is just himself.

The experiences in this book are raw and emotional. Chang details his battles with depression, bipolar disorder, addiction, public criticism, and self-improvement, but never claims complete healing and a know-it-all outlook. He is very clear throughout this book that his battles are constant; there is no conclusion to the bad stuff. That alone is, in my opinion, missing from most memoirs: the realism in life never feeling concluded, neat, or resolved. Even after the success of Momofuku, David Chang never escapes failure, whether in the industry or in his personal life. He’s not afraid to talk about being in and out of therapy, failed business ventures, medication, ethnicity and race, love, loss, or fatherhood.

Despite having Gabe Ulla as a co-writer, Chang refuses to relinquish his true voice. In true David Chang fashion, there is unapologetic cussing, a plethora of humor and even copies of emails he sent out during the events he highlights throughout the chapters. At times, it almost feels like you, as a reader, are too close to the action, like you’re being invasive in someone’s past and poking around for answers. The uncomfortability is a huge attribute to why Chang’s book does so well at delivering its messages. It’s common knowledge that David Chang couldn’t —and wouldn’t— want to include every bad moment and every good moment from his life, but having the lowest lows contrasting the highs shows that life, healing, and recovery are not linear.

Eat a Peach sets a high bar for memoirs to come, demonstrating the power in vulnerability and honesty not just with readers, but the vulnerability and honesty the author has with himself. David Chang does not let success or money obscure the paths behind and in front of him, instead realizing that the two are vital in getting his story right. Eat a Peach is a fun, deep, and touching glance into the culinary world and the kind of people who survive in it —and why.

Unfiltered: An Interview with Amaris Feland Ketcham by Andrew Sowers

Blue Mesa Review undergraduate reader Andrew Sowers speaks with poet and graphic memoirist Amaris Feland Ketcham about her new graphic diary, Unfiltered: A Cancer Year Diary published by Casa Urraca Press on April 25th, 2023. This interview was conducted just before the release of the book.

Amaris Feland Ketcham occupies her time with open space, white space, CMYK, flash nonfiction, long trails, f-stops, line breaks, and several Adobe programs running simultaneously. She is the author of two poetry books, Glitches in the FBI and A Poetic Inventory of the Sandia Mountains, and the Best Tent Camping: New Mexico guidebook. Her award-winning writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, the Utne Reader, and dozens of other venues. She teaches in the Honors College at the University of New Mexico where she is the faculty advisor for the nationally acclaimed arts and literature magazine Scribendi. She has painted murals throughout Albuquerque, acted in a radio drama about the Badlands National Park, and taken students on multi-week camping trips along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Amaris also stages creative encounters with patients as a poet and artist with the Arts-in-Medicine program at UNM Hospital.

What were your intentions initially in starting a graphic diary? Did you imagine that you would end up sharing it in this way?
I always respected people who kept regular diaries. I had never kept up a daily writing practice that didn’t involve a particular project—usually I am exploring some idea or question and it becomes an essay or series of poems or something in between. But, I started keeping a diary shortly before the pandemic began, and soon, wanting to improve my drawing skills, it morphed into a diary comic. When I took on the challenge of making a daily comic, I’d expected to draw about hiking, birdsong, and the mere mundane details of my life—a practice that would produce nothing interesting to share. It wasn’t until I was in a show at 1415 Gallery, where I shared a zine compilation of the comics from January 2022, that I realized other people might be interested in reading them. At that show, several people came up to me and thanked me for my vulnerability. We had just learned that the CT scan showed a nodule, and my husband would need another surgery. That collection ended on the forsythia comic. So, at the show, several people wanted to talk about their medical experiences, their cancer experiences. I think that’s one of the powerful connections that memoir provides us.

Who are some other comic artists or memoirists who you feel most influenced your art?
Definitely Lynda Barry! I think that Barry has inspired so many people to re-engage with their creativity and to start keeping diaries. I love John Porcellino’s King Cat comics, both his style and his fluency in moving between memory and poetic vignettes. As far as the actual drawing goes, I try to think more about Tintin and newspaper strips and how to draw panels that have a cartoony, goofy simplicity. I am less interested in rendering something so it looks “realistic” and more interested in being a little playful and embracing errors. I think that adds to the drawings looking like they were made by a person. (It also helps to embrace errors when you have a daily practice, because you must finish the entry with your coffee—from concept to story to drawing, you must be quick!)

What was the process of developing yourself and your loved ones into comic avatars like?
You can probably tell the characters change and are a little more refined throughout as I settled into what our drawn avatars looked like. It takes a while to figure out the telling details, what to emphasize on each character. For my own avatar, I settled on freckles, big hair, and trying to be consistent with the nose, face shape, etc. A couple people have told me that she doesn’t look anything like me. My own mother said, “That hair keeps getting bigger and bigger! You know your hair isn’t that big!” But the point isn’t that this character actually resembles me in a literal sense. Rather, she is my stand-in. And cartoons should exaggerate a little.

At the bottom of each entry you include a meal from the day and also a story you encountered in the news. I liked how this painted a very holistic image of the day. Not only do you put important events into panels, but you also show us something small within your control (a meal) and something large outside of your control (global news events). Where did you get the idea to do this? Were there any connections or patterns this practice allowed you to see?
I wanted a way to mark the days. It is also part of my “warm-up” for drawing the comic, just remembering something I ate the day before and scrolling a little through the news, then working on the title. For about a month after the first surgery, my husband could only eat soup—so that ended up being documented, including hints of my frustration with the lack of variation, (One entry notes the pea soup was uninteresting; by the time we got to sausage and cabbage in milk broth, I was very tired of soups.)

A couple people have pointed out that many of the headlines are related to COVID and that in a way, it’s a COVID diary. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “COVID diary,” but it is pretty firmly set during the pandemic. Our social circle contracted quite a bit during that time, so there aren’t a ton of other people in the book—even my work was often empty and I would be the only person in the building. But I think just as many headlines are about climate change or strange things that caught my eye (such as the meteorite crashing through a woman’s roof).

As your husband’s time in the hospital came to an end, I noticed an increased focus on nature, specifically birds. Was this an intentional shift?
Yes, it was intentional—or, at least the shift to nature. To convey the anxiety of the surgeries and hospitalizations, many of my comics became a little more abstract. I hoped that the nature comics would show a kind of re-grounding and renewal, as well as an attention to the world outside of one’s own head. Quite a few at the end are spring haiku. I hadn’t realized I included so many comics about birds!

What is your favorite bird?
That’s a tough choice! I think in the yard I am most partial to the thrasher and his crazy song, the black-chinned hummingbird who is always ready for a fight, the woodpecker and his persistent knocking, and the roadrunners and their games of chase.

What do you hope this memoir will give to your readers?
Hope. Cancer is such a daunting medical experience, and it always comes out of the blue. And it’s something that affects everyone eventually, either because you know someone with cancer or in remission, or a personal diagnosis. It’s often very difficult to find the ways to talk about and process medical diagnoses and treatments, but I think that’s one of the ways that graphic medicine excels, because it can connect with people on an emotional, cognitive, empathetic, cultural, and aesthetic level.

Would you encourage others to practice keeping a graphic diary? What advice would you offer for starting one?
Absolutely! Making a diary comic is a lot of fun—and one of the nice things about diary comics is that you can focus on the mundane aspects of your life. I have read diary comics about taking out the trash, folding fitted sheets, and scooping up dog poop from the yard. As far as what incites the story, the stakes can be pretty low.

When I started my diary comic, I was often dismayed at how “bad” my drawings were. I couldn’t even draw my cats consistently. It’s really easy to give up at that stage, but I would urge you to keep on working with it. Don’t feel like you must draw like anyone else. The way you draw is like the way you write—it’s individual and personal, wobbly weird lines and all.

The Immense Sadness of the Unknown: A Review of Sarah Anne Strickley’s Incendiary Devices

MFA student Amy Dotson writes her review for BMR:

The first two immediacies that must be considered when sending a book out to stake its place in the world are, of course, the cover and the title. When I first saw the cover of Incendiary Devices with its naked, burning feminine figure stamped firmly in the center of a charred blankness, I knew Sarah Anne Strickley was out do so some serious blazing. The very first short story, “A Story From the Perspective of the Flame,” expands the cover by giving us a woman self-immolating in her kitchen with cooking oil and a match as one of over a hundred who have committed the same self-destructive act as a response to the oppression of male violence. This chilling image sets the precedent for the rest of the book with a quick, clear spark. Sharp and on edge, Strickley fires us into her new collection of stories by asking: “What is at the root of such a horrifying phenomenon?” There is no space here for dawdling humility or a casual touch. There is nary a sardonic note. Each story is pointed back to this question with burning precision. The question is, itself, incendiary. This book is, indeed, an array of incendiary devices.

Strickley constructs her stories with remarkable narrative skill combined with the astute edge that comes with the inherent and specific violence of being a woman in America. Having spent most of my life in the American Midwest and South, the way the men in her stories speak, think, and act could be the men I grew up with. They are complex, genuine, and shaped by their own complex, sometimes violent, personal histories.

Some of them inspire empathy and understanding. In “Chronology of a Disaster,” Trace has a difficult time with marriage but loves his twin daughters. Many others inspire rage and confusion but maintain an unnerving everyman familiarity. Some are trying to do the right thing. Some of them are “nice guys,” like the narrator’s grandfather in “How to Write Your Rape Story,” who meets his wife in his dangerous junkyard stomping grounds after she escapes her abusive boyfriend in the dead of night. He saves her from possible peril by approaching her with a flashlight, but not without letting the unsurety of his intentions linger in the air for a moment. Some embody the flagrant transgressions—the wild cards women are always having to look out for who prevent us from ever moving comfortably in our world. For example, in “Dismember Me, Baby,” Bill purchases murder supplies after moving in with Caroline because he doesn’t like the way she’s unpacked and organized his possessions. Caroline can’t tell if he’s joking or not when he says, calmly, about the window seat she has placed his clothes in, “Maybe we should cut you into pieces and stuff you in there.” As he leaves to maybe or maybe not get the murder supplies listed in their uncomfortable extended riff on the “joke,” Caroline leaves the apartment, too, but she doesn’t come back. She makes her plan, acts carefully, moves to Colorado, eventually starts a family—but she lives with the fear that he might find her again one day. Her moves are questioned and attacked for the rest of her life by people who know Bill as “a great guy.” “Dismember Me, Baby” is particularly haunting because of the quotidian circumstance in which the sudden and shocking inciting incident is enveloped—Caroline isn’t even sure if she heard him right. The characters aren’t heightened in any dramatic literary fashion—a defining characteristic of most of the stories. They are terrifyingly real. How can we know who the Bills are until they suddenly say the one line that changes everything into a hellscape?

These stories also contain love and the possibility of love. We want Trace, a mild but confused twice-divorced dad in “Chronology of a Disaster” to be able to find love again. Ollie loves Sky in “The Angel of Stewart Beach,” one of the more tender stories in the collection. They’re flat-broke, about to be evicted from their small apartment, considering that they might be at an end. Ollie loves Sky enough to consider asking her to marry him to save their partnership, but not quite enough to not leave her alone at a crucial moment. When he sees her again later in life, he wants to embrace her, but his transgression, though not an intentionally malicious one, was still bad, and she rejects his embrace with a short shake of her head in a heartbreaking moment that makes us want to rewind time for Ollie. But, as Strickley writes in “Local Missing Girl:”

“…time keeps happening. You can try to make life hold in a decent spot, but it never will. The other problem is that life always heads in the direction you’ve knocked it. Like the trash they dump in space. It’ll keep on going that way forever unless it collides with something else.”

Ollie can’t go back to fix his mistakes. Neither can Trace. No one can. Decisions have consequences, even if they’re not the decisions you would have made if you went back in time immediately after transgressing.

One of the core tenets of storytelling is that a character must make a decision. This is what dictates motion, change. In most situations, there are the actors, and there are those who are acted upon. Responsibility is a fact that we need be reckoned with by someone, somehow. Where does responsibility lie? This question is interrogated in “Rear Window Redux,” in which Will, a victim of childhood abuse, considers what it means to be complicit. He believes he’s never done anything wrong. He’s seen a lot of bad stuff without intervening, but he’s comfortable because he has always held back his own rage from turning into actions he can’t take back. He believes he is morally safe. Where does he lie on the spectrum of responsibility?

The impossibility of knowing what actions lie in someone’s future lies at the heart of this book and fuels the tension that is the book’s engine. What will Mr. Meyer do to his wife next? What will Terry, a chaotic mischief-maker with haughty opinions about love, do to Katie once he gets her in his car? We want to believe these characters will not harm people.

We want to be able to love people and get close to them. We want wrongs to be made right. But, Strickley is telling us, these wants are often mucked up by the unfathomable qualities of the other that we can never understand. The narrator in “How to Write Your Rape Story” will never know why her grandfather let his future wife wait in the flashlight in the junkyard. The narrator thinks it through and lands on a reason. But it is constructed without her grandfather’s verification. Most of Strickley’s characters have an assortment of unknowns they will never have answered. This realm of the unknown is what Strickley is great at highlighting with these stories. And the unknown mixed with the truth of violence is a source of immense sadness.

Sarah Anne Strickley is the author the novella, Sister (Summer Camp Publishing, 2021) and the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). She’s a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship, an Ohio Arts grant, a Glenn Schaeffer Award from the International Institute of Modern Letters, the Copper Nickel Editors’ Prize for Prose and other honors. Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Witness, Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, The Southeast Review, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Hotel Amerika, Copper Nickel, storySouth, and elsewhere. She’s a term Assistant Professor of creative writing at the University of Louisville and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle, UofL’s award-winning literary journal.

Incendiary Devices is available for sale from Small Press Distribution at https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781948800570/incendiary-devices.aspx

Art is Subjective

Kani Aniegboka, our creative nonfiction editor, writes about his expectations of art and narratives he’d like to read:

Art is Subjective

If you wish to trace the path to the river, follow the trail strewn with pieces of broken clay pots. –Igbo proverb.

I’ve thought a lot about what to say in my introductory blog post for a while now. How do I define my expectations? What kind of work am I looking for? Good writing? But art is subjective. How could I possibly define what a good creative nonfiction piece is? Who has the authority to declare what is good or bad? Treating this question as anything but complicated and layered is how canons are formed. What is considered good literature in America may not be good literature in Nigeria or India. Literature is influenced heavily by culture, language, personalities, interests, and politics, so it is hegemonic to define what is universally good based on literature from one part of the world. As readers, we can have preferences and favorite authors, but we should be conscious of calling it what it is. This post is not about what I think is good or bad but about what attracts my interest. Here, I’m interested in discussing what keeps me reading any piece of creative nonfiction, the themes I’m interested in, and the voices I’m drawn to.

I like to read stories that grab me by the throat and pull me into the author’s world–an account that’ll override the beating of my heart and replace it with the palpitations of the character. Work that will attach itself to my sensibilities until I relegate my reality to the one the author offers. I always want to be twelve again, raise my head from a Stephen Lawhead novel, and see trees and lurking druids at the corners of my bedroom. That is what still pulls me into any work of literature. But what is that, though, and how do I know? The truth is, I have no idea. All I look out for is that feeling that the author is aware of their intentions but also allows the story to lead in moments. I resist stifled narratives and stilted language. I resist narratives that seek to conform to a mold rather than take a life of its own. 

That said, the fun part of literature is that you never know what a story will give you. How did I know that reading Eula Bliss’ Time and Distance Overcome about Bell and his telephone poles would lead to a heartrending revelation on racism and bestiality on the black body and, afterward, a furious debate with myself about whether she had the right to tell that story. Asking what I like to read is like asking what food I like best. I never know until I eat it. My best dish is only the best dish until I try something better. A new cuisine. A better chef. My premier palate experience is constantly being surpassed. Therefore, I’m always willing to try something new or a known dish made by a different cook. In so doing, I’ve learned to loosely hold onto what I consider my likes. I’ll try whatever you put before me. I don’t only read what I like; I read to discover what I like.

When reading Creative Nonfiction, I like to believe that it is based on real life and not, say, autofiction. Of course, I recognize that all literature genres are drawn from ‘real life’ whether in its totality or otherwise. On the debate on how much objective facts qualify a story as creative nonfiction, I say it dangles on honor and perspective. For instance, what I write as absolute about my family could be disputed by any of my sisters who experienced it differently. I am aware of the subjectivity of memory even when we share those memories with other people. However, the validity of your perspective about an event is separate from whether the event happened at all. This I urge writers to be conscious of when submitting work to BMR.

In addition, when reading Creative Nonfiction pieces, I look for how the author has made the piece of real-life event matter so that they get me to care as much for it as they do. I search for the author’s engaging thread. Do they talk about life and family trauma with such dark humor like David Sedaris that you feel guilty for laughing but can’t help but do? Do they battery-ram normative culture in such profound, intelligent, and metacognitive ways, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, that arguing the point feels like a lost battle? Are they able to draw the line from individual experience to universal contemplation? If I can’t tell why you’ve given me a story, I have no idea what to do with it.

I’m interested in culturally deep and diverse stories. I believe that the only way we can save the world is to redefine its reality, and getting exposed to all the before-now ignored truths of minoritized individuals gives us a chance to do so. I enjoy stories written by everyone, but I don’t want to read stories of whiteness—accounts based on the belief that the world is set and run on dominant-race ideologies that consider deviations from its culture alien. I appreciate stories that acknowledge their limitations, question their beliefs and convictions, and consider alternatives, not wrong but different.

I’ve heard that all stories have been told, but I recognize stories that attempt new things. I also feel that certain stories have been over-told, and it’s time for others to be told or at least to catch up, so I prioritize fresh stories, stories of people of color, and those of minorities. I get excited by stories that tackle race, gender, and class and stories that critically push back on imposed norms. Just like my best foods yet, I know these stories only when I read them, so I’m excited to discover my new best stories through this journey.

Be Contrarian, Be Passionate, Have Fun

BMR’s new fiction editor, Joe Byrne, on the kinds of work he wants to publish:

When I was first asked to write a blog post introducing myself and my expectations as Blue Mesa Review’s new fiction editor, I admit I floundered a bit. Obviously, like any fiction editor at any publication, I’m looking for good fiction. But what is “good” fiction? What differentiates “good” fiction from “bad”? How do we weigh personal taste against objective appreciation of craft? My predecessor and our current EIC, Anthony Yarbrough, began his introductory blog post by posing some related questions, and using them as a segue into a discussion of the kind of writing he’d like to publish. Other writers smarter and more talented than I have been wrestling with these questions since time immemorial, so I don’t see much point in even attempting to answer them with any degree of finality. Instead, I thought I’d take a page from Anthony’s book and discuss what I’d like to see in the pages of Blue Mesa Review, doing my best to speak in both general and specific terms.

I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian, especially when it comes to art; to me, the most interesting pieces are always those that somehow fly in the face of convention, subvert audience expectations, lead to a thought or feeling that one would never have anticipated, etc. That’s not to say that every piece needs to be wildly experimental in its form, nor is it to say that I don’t value conventions of craft as they are understood and promulgated in the literary world, because I do (and so should anyone interesting in publishing in literary magazines). But like any other, the literary culture is occasionally forced through a paradigm or zeitgeist shift of some kind, lest it become stale and uninteresting.

Last fall, Danica Lee published an impassioned BMR blog post entitled “In Defense of Pulp” wherein she makes the case for genre and pulp fiction as being worthy of attention and praise, identifying the line between them and “literature” as “arbitrary and often an elitist marker of value.” While one could posit a compelling argument against this statement, I agree with Dan-ica’s claim that genre and pulp are not worthless, and her post has me thinking about other ways in which the “academic” writing/MFA culture has influenced literary production.

For many years, Raymond Carver was a dominant component of this influence. I remember reading his stories for undergraduate writing workshops in the aughts, just as I remember receiving manuscripts back from instructors who’d clearly been influenced by his style: with nearly every adjective and adverb crossed out, with two- or three-word descriptions crossed out and replaced with a single word, and/or with syntactically complex sentences rearranged to be simpler, etc., etc. Carver wasn’t the only 20th-century American fiction writer to work in this mode, but his association with the aforementioned academic writing culture had been largely cemented by the time I began writing in earnest, and his influence, though not always explicitly articulable, was deeply felt, so much so that in his book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, literary scholar Marc McGurl chose Carver as his exemplar for one of three “aesthetic formulations” he identifies in “program era” American fiction: lower-middle-class modernism, a formulation defined as much by its minimalistic style as it was by its commitment to explorations of social structure.

While Carver’s minimalism certainly had, and has, its place in the pedagogy of creative writing—it is hard, for example, to conceive of a situation in which the use of “very fast” would be better than, say, “rapid” or “speedy” (a lesson all aspiring writers should learn)—I believe that, much like the academy’s focus on literary fiction over genre fiction, the encouragement of minimalism over maximalism has perhaps gone a bit too far. Beyond the blow it strikes to a young writer’s ego when seeing red lines through each of their carefully chosen modifiers, this focus on minimalism has, as at least one author has noted, denuded American prose of its “nuance, ele-gance, intricacy, and originality” to one extent or another, and has also, as another author notes, engendered a kind of homogenization in American literature, one in which contemporary fiction has become, as McGurl argues, inextricable from “the program” that created it. Obviously, “the program” is not a monolith—MFA workshops and other writing programs often differ drastically—but the commonalities, and their ramifications, are salient enough that this conversation has reached the national level.

So how do we move away from this potential homogenization? One way is by being contrarian. Don’t get too hung up on this instructor’s bias against adverbs, or that professor’s inclusion of Carver or Hemingway or Saunders on every syllabus. Synthesize the lessons your work-shops impart, yes, but write the way you want to write; if you’re more into sci-fi than literary fiction, great! If you choose to ignore dead white men like Carver and focus on more marginalized (but potentially more novel or unique) authors, awesome! If you want to write using a maximalist stylistic approach, more power to you! If I can detect an author’s passion and excitement, even if that passion and excitement are contained chiefly in a piece’s modifiers and syntactically complex, symbolism-rich language, I’m more likely to deeply consider their work.

On to more specific considerations: In recent weeks, the editorial staff has been engaged in discussions on defining the “identity” or “brand” of BMR moving forward. For my part, I’d like to see a magazine that maintains some degree of focus on New Mexico, or even just the southwestern US, as it is a region rich with potential fodder for good literature: a history of colonization and oppression, clashing cultures, cooperating cultures, beautiful landscapes and natural phenomena, complex art engendered by the most eclectic and unexpected influences, and so much more. Such a focus could also help in fulfilling another of the magazine’s missions, namely the inclusion of people who have been marginalized because of their race. In my role as fiction editor, I’d especially like to publish quality work from members of the Hispanic and indigenous communities, and/or work that has been informed by the experiences of those communities in this place.

Another point I’d like to quickly address: while perhaps not as obvious as the minimalistic influence writers like Carver have exerted on literary production, I’ve noticed a seeming bias against “animal stories” in recent years, and I’m not sure what to attribute it to. Indeed, Anthony’s predecessor in the fiction editor position, Ruben Miranda-Juarez, expressed this bias in his own introductory blog post. I can see where Ruben is coming from—I, too, have probably read enough horse and dog stories for a lifetime—but what about our state bird, the roadrunner, a unique predatory bird that, whenever I see one, reminds me of its dromeosaurid cousins? What about the tarantula hawk wasp, an insect with a life cycle so horrific one could be forgiven for assuming that it originated in the mind of H.R. Giger? Or the horned lizard, an animal so metal it can literally spurt blood from its eyes as a defensive mechanism, whose dwindling numbers point to larger and more dire implications of our relationship with the natural world? It seems to me that any of these species could be pivotal to any number of amazing, southwest-centric stories, essays, or poems, and could even help bring much-needed attention to the fact that our current relationship with the natural world is particularly fraught, to say the least.

Hopefully this gives anyone considering submitting work to BMR something to chew on. Again, I’m looking for good work (especially work that takes place in or is in some way related to NM/the southwest and its peoples) and in my experience, motivated contrarianism often produces just that; especially under the auspices of paradigmatic institutions and organizations like universities and MFA programs, it’s easy to forget one of the most important lessons art has to teach us: there are no rules, and if you’re not having fun, what’s the point?


Our new Poetry Editor, Amy Dotson, on what she’s looking for.

It is impossible to qualify what I want from poetry in the same way that you can’t know a new color until you see it. There are countless languages, perspectives, experiences, and textures that can be transferred through pen and paper. The poetry that speaks to me (and likely you, too) usually feels nothing short of magic. How can I describe things so mysterious? How can I want something I don’t know about?

There are some things I can name that contribute to my singular tastes because of the singular life I have lived. I like weird things, when a poem shows me a new perspective, when someone has an uncanny connection to oranges or a bizarre but interesting obsession with macaques. I like strangers to the familiar and friends to the unfamiliar. I like when poetry feels like it’s coming from a singular voice—like there’s some fire burning off in the distance and if I were in a watchtower, I could point to it and say, “I know who started that one.” And recently, through my studies and journey as a reader and writer, I have been drawn to the power of the image. Many things can make me giddy, and it’s usually because of a newness or awakening, but the crux is that I can’t anticipate what will awaken me. To attempt to expand on what I’m looking for, though, I will reach to some words that have affected me in the recent years.

Charles Olson, in Projective Verse, writes:

“A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.”

When I first read that, it struck me as a truth—something I have always felt about poetry but could not articulate. Olson was trying, in 1950, to move past the poet-as-subject and some more traditional elements of poetry towards objective (or projective) poetry. I, unlike Olson, have no extreme thoughts about objective vs. subjective poetry, though it should be mentioned that Olson’s words have had a vast affect beyond his movement—even Jorie Graham was able to take Olson’s concepts and use them for her subjective poetry. And while Projective Verse has the air of a mid-century American manifesto that some may or may not be partial to, this one principle of verse still sounds like a maxim. Yes, of course reading a poem is like touching a wire of an active pylon. Energy is transferred. Whatever that energy is, however it presented itself to you—you are relaying it somehow.

Somehow? Well, that’s where the artistry is. In the presence of the intractable, you do what you can do with words to transcend the experience of what you’re trying to communicate to transfer energy. (Easy enough, right?) For those who love formulas, in contrast to Olson’s more free-spirited approach to poetry, T.S. Eliot used the term “objective correlative” to describe “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” This has also struck me lately, and though Olson and Eliot may be at odds in style, these two concepts can work together. Eliot famously called Hamlet a failure because Hamlet’s emotions were too vast for how they were communicated. There was a lot of describing, but nothing that relayed those emotions to the audience in the electric way. Hamlet was dealing with the mysterious, the inscrutable, the intangible—but there was no objective correlative to transfer the energy.

Then, I think it’s safe to say that what I’m looking for in poetry is that high-energy transfer of emotion, experience, texture, perspective, orange tree, etc. I want to be able to touch the live wire of the pylon and be changed because of the energy it sends into me. However you aim to do that—well, I’m eager to be surprised.

How I Write Poems, For You

BMR reader and poet, Tessa Keenan, on the relationship between a poet and their poetry and a poet and their audience. 

I have always written poems for myself; as diary entries, as a way of processing, to capture and remember. I want to create whole and contained circles of thought. I want the clarity that comes with refinement. But in the last couple of years of my undergraduate degree I have started to share my poems. Doing so has made me realize how different it is to write a poem with the intention that it is going to be read. I am not just writing for myself anymore. I am writing for you. This shift in intentionality has changed my work in unexpected ways. My poems have gained a legitimacy. They became work, not just musings. And I had to make space for you. I had to allow you in. This transition was hard. I had been writing poems about things that I didn’t understand, in an attempt to make sense of them for myself. I can’t do this when I’m writing for you. You need me to understand what I’m saying. You need me to take your hand. This is a balance I still struggle with when I write. I want to make enough space for you in a poem so that it can feel like it belongs to you. I want you to understand it in a way that makes it feel like your poem. But I don’t want to give you too much space so that you feel like you’re left out in the cold, lost and confused. I write in what I hope is accessible language. I set my poems in real, familiar places. They are usually involve things you can hold. I want to tell you what it is about and how I feel about it. And then I want you to tell me how you feel about it. My hope is that there is enough space for a conversation to take place. I don’t want my poems to be monologues. I yearn for dialogue.

It’s tricky because I don’t know who you are, and I don’t want to assume. Lately, my mom has been reading some of my poems and she found them difficult to engage with. She seemed desperate to find me in them. Her daughter. The person she knows. She wanted to know if a particular line related to a specific event in my life, or if another line related to somebody we both know. I understand, and am grateful, that not many other people will be reading my work in the same way. I much prefer you, an anonymous reader. Because when I write a poem that refers to my brother, yes, in a way, it is about my brother but I also want it to be about your brother. I want it to be about the potentially universal experience of having a brother, if there is such a thing. My mom’s way of reading was helpful to me. It made me realize that I wasn’t getting the balance right. I was giving too much of the responsibility of the poem to you. It needs to be my poem just as much as it is yours.

This is also something I’m learning though reading my work aloud publicly. When I’m able to embody the work, then it becomes more of a gift that I am giving you. You can see directly where it comes from. You see my hands holding the paper and you hear the slight lilt in my voice. My body grounds the poem in a way that I can’t do for you when it’s on the page. I’ve always felt that my work was separate from me in a way that felt important. I didn’t want to identify too much with what I was writing. I didn’t want my self worth to be intertwined with how the work was received. I wanted there to be me, and the poem. But it’s been an unexpected joy to embody my work. My poems aren’t me but they are a genuine expression of self. While reading, I want to connect with you just as much as the poem connects with you. Embodying my work has bridged the gap of the page in a way that feels beneficial and impactful.

I want to keep having this expanding conversation with you. This is why I write them for you, a reader.

Tessa Keenan is a poet from Tasmania, Australia. She will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in English in the fall. 

American Gospel: a Book Review

BMR reader Meg Vlaun reviews American Gospel by Miah Jeffra 

Miah Jeffra is a writer, artist, and former military brat hailing from the South. Their education centered upon Critical Studies in the Arts, and their work covers a spectrum of issues including class, gender structures, urban studies, oppressive race constructs, and more. Jeffra currently teaches writing and decolonial studies at Santa Clara and Sonoma State Universities. In their freshest novel, American Gospel, Jeffra presents the story of three individuals in Baltimore caught up in a city revivification drama: the plan is to demolish neighborhoods and replace them with a theme park called Crabtown. The narrative shifts point of view each chapter. It follows seventeen-year-old Peter as he explores his identity and navigates his role in society. It follows Peter’s mother and redheaded southern spitfire, Ruth Anne, as she grieves her eldest son Joby’s death, and manages crippling fears of her estranged abusive husband and Peter’s ensuing abandonment when he heads to college. And it follows Thomas, a Catholic Brother and history teacher at Peter’s school, who is quietly in love with Ruth and, as he approaches middle-age, is finally unpacking his true self, desires, and future.

American Gospel is a psychoanalytic case study, albeit fictitious. How and why does communication fail to foster connection? In what ways do core trauma and generational trauma impact society? Via mesmerizing lyricism, Jeffra answers these questions and reinforces the idea that what makes something deeply intimate and personal also makes it universal, and that we solve macro problems in micro moments.

Jeffra’s psychological realism serves to illustrate why we act the way we do—specifically, why we are so challenged in our interpersonal connections. Things unsaid leave Peter, Ruth, and Thomas isolated from those they love. So much could be clarified, if only the words were spoken. We witness this most acutely in Ruth. When Peter’s acceptance to Columbia University arrives in the mail, Ruth is concurrently coping with a relocation letter and the belief that her husband Isaac looms lethal. In her terror, she cannot force words out: “There is no air in me, I can’t even open my mouth to explain. The relocation letter. Isaac’s flower and no note. To have Peter understand. All of it is stuck way down my throat” (263).

But why is Ruth this way? Why can’t she let Peter in? These questions plagued me the entire novel until the end, when we see the role generational trauma has in shaping Ruth’s character. We’re left to speculate: if Ellwood Park is full of phantom wayward Jobys, how might Baltimore have been different if Ruth hadn’t experienced trauma of her own? What if, instead of biting her tongue, Ruth had spoken the words she needed to Joby—truly connected with Joby? Considering his intelligence, Joby might then have been self-assured and securely attached from the get-go, someone unafraid to embody his identity, speak plainly, and gather with like-minded souls. He might have more than survived—he might have been an agent of change. How about the million other Ruth’s mothers and subsequent Ruths across the globe, and all those potential Jobys saved? Just think of that reach!

To be sure, Peter isn’t wrong when he muses that “If desire ripens in the absence of language, then words kill it, make it rotten. Words, that attempt precision, yet never absolute, like science like religion, never in full agreement, always slightly askew from exact meaning. If desire ripens in the absence of language, then words kill it” (373). Language fails us in every way, every day. It is just a tool fashioned by humans; just like humans, it is imperfect.

Nevertheless, words are our broadest avenue for connection—and so we must try to obliterate barricades. We must speak.

In Jeffra’s representation of the phantom character Joby, and then Peter, as products of Ruth’s incapacity to vulnerably connect with her children (learned from her own mother), I see an acute understanding of how what begins in the modest confines of the family home plays out large over millennia, as those children become adults and have children of their own. We see the consequences on the news media daily via riots, violence, politics, tyranny, and war. This is the impact of generational trauma. This is how micro becomes macro, and if we want change to happen, we must reverse this process: what macro ills began with the micro must be healed in the micro. It’s Peter’s new friend, self-assured Max, whose group of peers (confident in their voices) meets, marches, and moves. Here lies our hope. Revolution begins with such individuals in small groups, protecting one building at a time. It also begins with Thomas’s tiny tremendous decision to gift his family home to a single mother in need, thus enhancing Little Italy’s flavor for the future. Small begets big.

When I was a young stay-at-home mom, people reassured my tumultuous mind, saying, “The most important work is accomplished at home.” It was nice to hear, but I thought they were full of shit. What was I doing to save the world? Wiping butts? Baking dino nuggets? Reading One Fish, Two Fish until my brain atrophied from understimulation? I both loved and hated that job. Mothering. But now I see. Jeffra’s American Gospel addresses issues of critical race theory, faith, gender and sexuality, extinction versus gentrification versus progress, in a manner so complex yet so well-defined that it could be taught in classrooms. Nevertheless, what I found within the text was evidence that great change, world change, has roots in the smallest moments of vulnerable, authentic connection between parent and child.

Meg Vlaun has an MA in English Literature and studies creative writing at UNM and CNM. She will begin her MFA in creative writing at Regis University later this year. She writes creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, and has published pieces in Limina: UNM Nonfiction Review, Meat for Tea, and Leonardo Magazine. Meg instructs college composition and currently tutors English at CNM’s Westside Campus. 

Manic Pixie Dream Girl Over?

Undergraduate BMR reader, Alexis Pierce, discusses the rise in popularity of “Female Manipulator” literature.

“If this is her bookshelf: run,” the post reads. It features images of book titles, among them works like The Bell Jar, Gone Girl, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Girl Interrupted, and Valley of the Dolls. These books have all been dubbed under the internet lingo as “Female Manipulator” literature.

This phrase, Female Manipulator, is a growing term across social media platforms with thousands of people using it on Instagram, thousands of people following updates on Tumblr, and a combined total of over 169 million views of videos on TikTok with the hashtag. Female Manipulators are characterized mainly by self-destructive tendencies, a forthright if not flippant tone, confidence bordering on cockiness, and usually a large distaste for the patriarchy. Their behaviors and method of coping very often don’t make them good people. However, it is exactly this about the Female Manipulator that makes young women gravitate to it in media.

To truly understand the rise in Female Manipulator literature, you must look back to another archetype in pop culture, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This term was first coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, who described the character type as, “ [Existing] solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is eccentric, quirky, and girlish. She is characterized by her uniqueness, typically in contrast to other women. Almost always this character’s main function is to serve as the love interest to a male protagonist and help him out of a brooding, usually depressive, state. If she has any of her own mental health issues, they only work to further separate her from what the protagonist views as average. This archetype can be found all over film and literature, including but not limited to works like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Elizabeth Town, The Great Gatsby, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Fahrenheit 451, and Looking for Alaska.

Despite its popularity, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché has received a lot of criticism for its portrayal of women as reductive and condescending; people state that it’s mostly there to serve as a male fantasy. In response, some media emerged with purposeful subversions of the trope in order to critique it. Even with the critiques and general dislike of the trope among many, it represents a larger issue of the portrayal of women in media with their function being to aid a man in his journey while she remains static and underdeveloped. However, the books that are labeled as Female Manipulator literature are absent of such portrayals.

This fact could largely account for the rise in popularity of such literature. The women featured in these stories often contrast certain other tropes of women in media including the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has issues in her life, but they all work to make her more mysterious, harder to grasp, deeper, and different from other girls. The Female Manipulator has issues, but they aren’t made out to be pretty. While one could argue that Female Manipulator literature can still lead to the romanticization of their negative behaviors, the root of why that happens is because people are drawn to it, not because the characters themselves are meant to be desirable. Instead of saving the man and making him better, the Female Manipulator does exactly that, she manipulates. The readers who look to this type of literature do so with the knowledge that the women in it are problematic in many ways. However, these women’s flawed and fully human characterizations, rather than depictions of them as saviors, lead readers to seek it out. These characters display attributes traditionally seen as non-desirable in women, and their selfish nature contradicts the stereotype of the female caregiver. As well, when the characters behave in aggressive or even violent ways, it appeals to the concept of “feminine rage”, letting out anger towards the patriarchy (or the men who represent it) instead of remaining passive and agreeable.

Critics of the popularity of the Female Manipulator term point to its nihilism and potential misguidance to normalize the behavior. Others call it hypocritical to glamorize this behavior in women. However, the rise in popularity of this term and this type of literature could give insight into the frustrations felt by many people not only towards the portrayal of women in media but towards the patriarchy in general.

On Tiktok, one of the top posts with the Female Manipulator hashtag has over 300 thousand total likes. It features text across the screen where Tiktok user Disaalind writes:

“I hate being a girl… I hate having to pretend to like men because truth be told I hate them. I hate how they talk to me. I hate how they look at me. I hate having to giggle when they say something. I hate being nice to them. I hate that I feel small in their presence. I hate when they touch me. I hate what they have created. I hate that I have to look good if I want to be respected amongst them. I hate who I become around them. I hate what they did to me.”

This draw to “unlikeable” female characters reflects widespread frustration with patriarchal values and the inability to ever meet the unreasonable standards set on women. The expectations for women to behave a certain way, to look a certain way, to provide for others a certain way, and to not let their own issues and needs get in the way. The rise of the Female Manipulator is just one clear example of the resentment towards larger societal issues and how those feelings then reflect in the media that we consume.

Bio: Alexis Pierce is an undergraduate student majoring in political science and English at the University of New Mexico. She currently works as the digital editor for UNM’s literary magazine Conceptions Southwest and spends her free time writing stories of her own.