On Form: A Roundtable Interview with Three Blue Mesa Review Writers

In this interview, writers Tess Fahlgren, Ari Laurel, and B. Tyler Lee discuss their writing process, their audience, borrowed forms, and the boundaries between genres.

Read Ari Laurel’s story “Farewell to the Last Mango in the Pacific Northwest” in Issue 44

Read B. Tyler Lee’s poems “Recipe: Rhubarb, Chili, & Ginger Jam” and “Recipe: Snowplow” in Issue 43

Read Tess Fahlgren’s essay “feast day: a lyric” in Issue 42

¿Cómo se dice accessibility?

Every time I finish a new poem, I first go through all the stages of grief (of course) and then, usually, arrive at a deep nostalgia for my native language. Out of all the writing I do, I don’t know why poetry always forces me to acknowledge that I am writing and molding this language that was once completely unknown to me.

I was ten years old when I arrived in the United States after having to flee my hometown, Ciudad Juárez, due to violence. At the time of arrival, I knew exactly two complete sentences in English, “My name is Evelyn” and “My mom made cake.” I don’t know why the latter stuck with me after six months of formally learning the language in my Mexican elementary school, but I think I just really 1. love my mom and 2. love cake, and that sentence combines them both. Anyway, I spent the first five years of my life in American classrooms completely unsure of what was being said around me, unless it involved cake. And so, I consistently felt stupid.

I don’t think I had a good grasp of the language or felt confidently fluent enough until high school. It was during this time that I began to write, using my limited vocabulary. I knew that in order to be a better writer, I had to read more and therefore familiarize myself with a more expanded vocabulary. This completely backfired on me, of course, because when I went out and tried to read what has been considered the best literature for ages, I could not understand a single word. It was written in a foreign language. The English that I knew and used was nowhere to be found within those pages, so, I gave up. I felt like people like me, people without an impressive English vocabulary, were not meant to be good writers. Obviously, I eventually unlearned this, or else I wouldn’t be here writing to you today, but it took a lot of convincing. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to exclusively read contemporary poets (some of my favorites include Ada Limón, Olivia Gatwood, and our 2021 Summer Contest judge, Natalie Scenters-Zapico) that I recognized that poetry didn’t have to be an overly complicated puzzle, that it could very well be understood.

As I gratefully take on the role of Poetry Editor for Blue Mesa Review this year, I want to advocate for accessible language. I want our readers to be able to dive fully into the world of the poems we publish, not sit outside wondering how to get in. I see now how long poetry has kept people out, has excluded and made readers feel unwelcomed, myself included. I want to believe that poetry is for everyone, every reader. Maybe this is an optimistic belief. Maybe poetry can change the world, but only if we welcome every reader, only if we make them understand.

Make It Weird

Ruben Miranda-Juarez, BMR’s new Fiction Editor, introduces our new Non-Fiction Editor, Cyrus Stuvland

Cyrus and I met through one of our courses at the University of New Mexico. In reflecting on our fledgling relationship, I thought about how grateful I am for being able to find connection in what felt like a year of disconnection. The pandemic experience has exasperated massive inequality, we’ve been able to see certain ideologues for what they are: sycophants. But we also, depending on where one is situated, have been able to experience hope. There have been enclaves of communal support, whether that be your pod mates, mutual aid collectives, or online communities developing throughout the country, throughout the world. There have been opportunities to stay connected and people desperately trying to minimize or mitigate the risks associated with a global pandemic.

As you read through some of the questions I thought out, I want you to know that Cyrus has good taste in clothes, thus good at fashion, and likes to make sure that they match. They’re one of the most creative individuals I know and carry themselves with a humility which makes for many moments of being amazed by their creations. I see Cyrus as a person who is always thinking carefully about their actions, language, and presence, and so it was wonderful to hear about their tastes in nonfiction, poetry, and art.

So, without further ado, here is my conversation with Cyrus (who still drinks IPAs at their age).

What do you look for when it comes to non-fiction?

I look for formal experimentation, hybridity, layers, lyricism, heavily researched, and exploratory non-fiction. I don’t necessarily need too much of a plot, but I need people and places to fly off the page. Mostly, I look for the experience of a writer taking me with them on some sort of quest to learn something about themselves, memory, the world.

What does a piece have to do to move you?

I can’t really predict what will move me. I’ve been strangely fascinated by writing about ice—like, frozen water, not immigration—for like a year now. But I don’t actually think it’s ice, I think it’s some of the writing I’ve read about it, which is just beautiful. So, I guess it has to be beautiful. That’s all I know for sure.

What are some subjects or themes you are curious about?

I feel open to most things in terms of themes or subjects. I think something I’m not particularly interested in in terms of form is more traditional memoir writing, so in order for me to be interested in your childhood memoir, it might need to be about a subject or from a perspective that feels fresh to me. Generally, though, I’m a sucker for writing that emphasizes place and anything queer or trans. I will be looking for pieces from Black, Indigenous, and Latinx perspectives in particular, especially if they are from or about the Southwest.

Who is on your current reading list? And how have they changed or reframed what you think about craft?

Right now, I’m reading a book called Exile and Pride by Eli Clare. It’s about disability, queerness, class, race, and I guess the urban vs. rural divide. It reads like part memoir and part essay and the themes are really helping me think through my own memoir. This summer I’m basically trying to read all of the rural queer things I can get my hands on, which is how I ended up with it. Otherwise, I just finished Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters for fun and because it’s so trans. (I don’t read that many novels these days).

What are pieces from previous issues of BMR you would tell a reader to look into to get a feel for what you are looking for?

I loved “Feast Day: A Lyric” by Tess Fahlgren, which was the winner of last year’s contest. I loved it for its form, which felt so fragmented and experimental and felt like it fit the content so beautifully. In the last issue, I thought “The Bêbeda” by Carmelinda Scian was a beautiful story and I love it when nonfiction takes someone other than the narrator on as the central subject (ostensibly).

Last question, what kind of art would like to see in our future issue?

I’d honestly like to see BMR get a little weirder with artwork. Also, I love collage. Some collage would be awesome.

Ruben, Like the Sandwich

Cyrus Stuvland, BMR’s new Creative Non-Fiction Editor, introduces our new Fiction Editor, Ruben Miranda-Juarez


I first met Ruben on Zoom last fall in a class about teaching writing. He consistently said things that made me wish I’d had him as a first-year writing instructor—things like, “I’m a leftist, not a liberal, so I’m not necessarily against the use of force,” and “I’m making my students read the Combahee River Collective Statement.”

Since then, we’ve become writing buddies and are now both starting as genre editors at BMR, so we decided that we’d interview each other instead of writing our own intros, just to mix things up.

When we met up to discuss the type of writing we were most interested in publishing next year, I found Ruben drinking a lager “because I’m too old for IPAs” and reading The Three Body Problem, a sci-fi novel by Cixin Liu. We talked a little about visiting communist countries and dabbling in photography and other art forms before we got started.

When I asked him what kind of fiction he was most interested in publishing at BMR, Ruben said he’s looking for writers who “are brave in subject matter” and writing that “propels action and growth but is not genre bound.”

In his own writing, Ruben is currently struggling with plot and interested in “a more speculative realm” but worries because “people are too quick with labels.” He doesn’t want his writing to be labeled “magical realism” just because he put some ghosts in there, he explains.

But back to BMR: “What’s most important to me is the story—as long as the story is good, I’m actually okay with genre fiction, which I know has not traditionally been accepted by BMR, but I don’t care. I want to see good story, strong characters, and writers having fun with their fiction.”

He shrugs and takes a drink of his beer. Ruben has never seemed too concerned with how things have been done in the past, I note. I like that about him. I feel like he could be into some weird fiction. And I am not wrong.

Ruben is also drawn to strong images and says he’s a “sucker for aesthetics.” “Oh, and I love good sentences,” he adds. Some of his favorite writers are Toni Morrison, Alvaro Enrigue, Irenosen Okojie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Luis Negrón, Elena Ferrante, and Michaela Coel.

“What I don’t want to publish,” Ruben tells me, “are stories about animals…stories about horses? No thanks, I’m good. I love the Black Stallion series as much as the next person, but I’ve seen enough of those.” He’s being funny but he’s also serious. He goes on to say that generally as a reader he needs to feel like the author is really invested in their characters. And he’s always looking for a fresh perspective.

“I have been wondering,” he says as we are finishing up, “about the role of literary magazines like BMR.”

“What about them?”

“Well, do they really have an impact besides serving as a sort of vehicle for people in MFA programs to get published? Like who are our readers? What are they into? What would our subscription numbers look like?”

I think for a bit. I don’t know many people outside of my writer circles who read lit mags unless they are hugely famous ones.

“I don’t know,” I admit.

“Well I’d like to find out,” says Ruben.

I nod. The sun has nearly set and Ruben tells me he has to get up early for Jiu-Jitsu, so we part ways.

A Note from the Editor-in-Chief

When I moved to Albuquerque, sight unseen, in the Fall of 2019, it may as well have been a foreign country to me. Not knowing which neighborhoods I liked best, I stayed at a former coworker’s mother’s home in the South Valley for a month while she was on vacation in Greece. In exchange, I fed and watched her menagerie of animals—two horses, two dogs, an aging cat, a parrot, and a ball python. One night, during New Mexico’s monsoon season, a sudden storm blew out the power throughout the South Valley. Before moving to New Mexico, I’d lived in densely populated Mid-Atlantic cities my entire life—I hadn’t known a city could get so dark. I sat on the floor in the living room. The dogs and the cat orbited around me like small moons and shadows ambled clumsily past the black television screen in the lantern light. My host had lived in that house for more than 30 years and the furniture showed evidence of pleasant wear. Mid-century paintings of horses running in the desert were carefully arranged beside framed stick figure drawings I presumed to be the work of my former coworker.

Since then, I’ve thought often about what home means to me. Of course, like all of you, I spent a lot of time inside of my (various different) apartments over the past year and I conscientiously arranged and rearranged my belongings to create something that felt comfortable enough to never leave. And I spent a lot of time in parks and forests, on top of mountains and in bodies of water, alone in my own body and, for the first time in my life, incapable of forming a list of other things I should’ve been doing instead.

Last May, while I was living alone in a little studio in Albuquerque, a friend from back home told me about the Thrasher’s OC MD boardwalk livestream. Thrasher’s is my favorite beach treat, a boardwalk staple serving fries by the bucket, soaked in peanut oil and heavily salted. True Marylanders douse them with apple cider vinegar and whether or not they’re meant to be eaten with ketchup is heavily debated. Intensely homesick, in my landlocked, sun-filled apartment, I turned on the Trasher’s livestream every morning for two months as I filled my swamp heater with water from a kettle. I watched intently as little sunburned men, women, and children milled around the boardwalk I’d visited every summer as a kid. They appeared happy, dazed, non-plussed.

In July, I moved back to my hometown of Baltimore and, last month, I went to the beach. I watched as little sunburned men, women, and children milled around the boardwalk. On the way home, I took a nap in the car as my boyfriend drove and I woke to a sunset over the Blue Ridge, a herd of grazing cows whipping past the passenger seat’s window. It’s hard to say precisely why this place has become home to me, but I know now that a home is not defined simply by familiarity. To me, a home isn’t necessarily where I’m from or where I live, but a certain kind of spirit.

Recently, I’ve been reading much more for pleasure and I have noticed the way that people describe their world with the fidelity and attention I’ve reserved in my writing for descriptions of home, wherever that may be. I think of Aracelis Girmay in “Second Estrangement” writing “Please raise your hand, / whomever else of you / has been a child / lost, in a market / or a mall, without / knowing it at first, following / a stranger, accidentally / thinking he is yours” or Frank O’Hara in “A Terrestrial Cuckoo”: “What a hot day it is! for / Jane and me above the scorch / of sun on jungle waters to be / paddling up and down the Essequibo / in our canoe of war-surplus gondola parts[.]” When I think of how these poets have arranged this odd sequence of words on a page in just the right order, I think of the magpie in the Planet Earth segment who cannot stop collecting objects for his nest until he finds the bright red felt heart that makes his home complete. How weird to be a sack of bones and blood moving through space in time with so many other sacks of bones and blood. And to be able to say something about it!

As BMR’s new Editor-in-Chief, I’m thrilled to keep reading your work and I’m confident that you’ll continue to send us pieces that show us what the world looks like to you. It’s an honor to be filling the shoes of the many great editors (and great writers, in their own right) who have come before me and to be trusted with your words as they seek a home.

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.