2020 Essays

Erin Slaughter


In a movie, this would be the place: The pockmarked road from truck tires tilling thorough bramble. Lavender sprung up like stray hairs among browned-out winter weeds. The moon-carved shutters, half-stolen by vandals, filtering damp, gray-golden light. My sister climbing the gnarled tree in the front yard, paper flowers in her hair, a nose unlike mine, and deep, crescent-moon dimples; half-sister. Best sister.

This house is log-built and monstrous, and like all things I am attracted to, abandoned. My mother tells me it’s the Jane Wyatt estate, built in the 1930’s by an actress who returned from her life in smoky New York to Crossville, Tennessee, to reclaim the land she was born on. Down yonder are the ruins of her grandfather’s home, the home of her youth. My mother brings us here, my sister and me.

Two stories and fourteen rooms, emptied out glorious. Glass windows blown to shards, and wires sprouting from the weathered mortar between cherrywood planks. A gorgeous grand staircase, the banister ripped from rusted nails. The built-in cabinets are still intact, and my sister makes a game of stuffing her spry bones into them, emerging unexpected, with a laugh. The air here does not feel haunted.


Earlier in the year, the Crossville Chronicle ran a story with the headline: “Crossville’s Lady of Fame.” In the accompanying picture, an old woman stands by a framed painting of the log mansion. She holds a black-and-white picture of a woman with dark hair pinned under a wool hat: Jane Wyatt, young and alive. The old woman: Ruby Wyatt Davis, her half-sister.

It doesn’t take much to become a “Lady of Fame” in a town as small as Crossville, the place my parents and eleven-year-old sister have newly settled after moving from a town in Texas not much bigger. Texas, the homeland I left quickly, my footprints marking the front yard with ashes on the way out. In places like these, all it takes to be Somebody is to be gone.

The gone-er, the better. Jane went to Nashville, then Kentucky, then New York. I went to Seattle, then Kentucky, then—well, I’ll go somewhere else, probably. Who can say? There’s still time. You get better at being gone the more you do it, and women like Jane and I have a lot of practice.

Jane’s sister remembers Jane’s absent years through fond gifts: letters, one printed with a stamp from Grand Central Station. Silver pieces from her travels to China. Anyway, these things are all lost to time now.

I think of my own sister and a drawing she made in second grade that hangs on the wall in my office. In crayon, three crude sketches of landscapes with the captions “Texas,” “New York City,” and “England,” and underneath, her explanation: My dream is to travel the world because my sister travels and she inspires me to do this. It’s a reminder that there is a reason to keep exploring, keep living wild. That the wandering part of me, though sometimes contentious in my family, is something good.

Being gone was never a choice for me. It was an impulse, a deadly lust for disappearing, a flame tangled into my DNA. Some people feel an obligation to their roots. Jane rerouted the same well-water from her grandfather’s house to flow through the pipes of the log mansion. When my mother assumes their house will be passed on to me when they’re gone, I tell her I would never choose to live in Crossville. The truth—an obvious one based on everything she knows about me—but it upsets her. Maybe I’m not old enough yet. I’ve never lived in New York. I’ve not yet tired of being a ghost, a voice on the telephone, a letter with a stamp from Grand Central Station.


Take three crooked staircases to an attic room with a crouched sliver of roof, the windows pouring open. I trace my hands over a charred plank, evidence of a forgotten arson, some teenager’s sour-apple-Smirnoff-Molotov-cocktail. Evidence here, in the shattered glass and weathered floorboards, of a burning.


When Jane was in Kentucky she married a man. He was an alcoholic, and she divorced him. She must have loved him, but he must have loved drinking, drowning, more; a love unattainable. When I moved to Kentucky, I drove in as the sun was setting orange and pink over rolling hills bordered by rustic wooden fences. I felt my chest swoon bittersweet and mystical as I thought, This would be a beautiful place to fall in love. And I was right. But how to explain that falling in love is about falling in love with everything, the whole of being alive?

Once we name something, we can never see it the same way again. I named him love and he became it. He named me something I wished to be, and I tamed the fire I always was, smoldered only on the inside. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I’m trying to say something different now. I’m trying to say that I have always wanted what is unattainable. I was a little girl watching through my bedroom window at night as the pinprick shine of cars disappeared down the highway; I was a teenager wanting blazing bleeding craving so thoroughly it made my core shake and my soul run and hide inside of me for years; here I am now, dousing myself in gasoline and calling it need.

I’m trying to say, I think, that maybe the women I know write with fire under their skin because there is a fire under their skin. Maybe their words were ignited by some man—father or lover—who made them feel the lightness of grief, or tried to drown them in remembering. Or maybe women are born of fire and spend their lives clawing their way back from burning, creating new things to make up for their shame of singeing everything they touch.

How telling it is that women often describe creation, even childbirth, as a kind of obliteration. Love, for me, was a pouring out and reconstructing of self; another obliteration.

Here, I am writing myself out of the record, and perhaps I have always been. This is just another kind of leaving.


Jane Wyatt died at age 93, in the decade before I was born. When I search her name, I find only pictures of an actress more famous than her, twenty years her junior. Now, in a small-town newspaper article, her half-sister remembers her. Ruby Wyatt Davis never left Tennessee. She drives reporters down the pockmarked road to the gutted house. She shows them the way.

I can’t say what is better in the end, what is freedom: to leave and be lost to the wind, or to stay and remember. My hope is that my sister gets the choice. Maybe freedom is in the choosing, in believing, even for a second, that nothing is truly unattainable.


I could tell you that six months after I touched that swath of land and wrote down these words, I left Kentucky, pried my life from the wilding hills and moved to Nashville, the city that hosted Jane’s first escape. In the first weeks of living there, each time I drove the interstate I nearly wept at the skyline, those downtown buildings feeling like evidence of some achievement, a particular aspirational gone-ness. As I tried not to crash my car, eyes glued to that monument of light, a ghost of the child self who once watched car headlights streak across the horizon like stars fleeing the night dipped its corners momentarily back into my body.

Six months after I explored Crossville’s hidden mansion, before that ghost-self faded into commuter’s monotony, the Wyatt estate burned to the ground in the night.

And what does it mean if there were no charred wooden boards to trace with my fingers as I climbed through the ribcage of a grand place wilting in the woods in Tennessee? If I tell you that house had never before hosted a fire. That it was just forgotten.

Erin Slaughter is editor and co-founder of The Hunger, and the author of I Will Tell This Story to the Sun Until You Remember That You Are the Sun (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Split Lip Magazine, New South, Passages North, and elsewhere. Originally from north Texas, she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University.

2020 Poetry

Cassidy McFadzean


I pull a card and make a wish
Sipping horseshoe decanter—
I must have licked a toad

The scalpel snips the flesh
Silver nitrate for the growth
Matchstick for the tissue

The flesh cauterized Singing
defiant speech from the tip
of my blackened tongue

Three stitches holds me in
Waiting for a cryptic message:
It’s exactly as we expected

The inside of a garlic clove
A remedy imprinted with
the signature of its scourge

The root of it remained
Virus feeding on mutant genes
Stuttering Philomela

I spill my gut feeling
A voice on a screen insisting
The light in you is all I see


Fortune distributes boons and woes

banishes those who demand too many boons

So marks a third of my life which seems a sliver

the further I slither from it

and all the silver baubles are shaken down

It was neither ham-fisted nor pussy-footed

Yet I felt its heaviness And and and

Even as I moved through its corridors

There were riches and sorrows and sorrows and riches

The song’s the same; the chorus repeats

In the early hours of the recent decade

a defunct email account alerted me

with registration for a class I did not take

toward an attachment I did not open

to memorize and perform, as an audition

A night fretful with worries

from Old English wyrgan to strangle

Seize by the throat and tear

So it goes The hangman in my throat

What music embedded In its skipping track

Cassidy McFadzean graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently lives in Toronto. She is the author of Drolleries (Penguin Random House Canada 2019) and Hacker Packer (PRHC 2015). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry JournalBOAATDiode, and Prelude.

2020 Poetry

Patrycja Humienik

at a monastery 75 miles north of santa fe

cacti bloom magenta in the no service canyon
two deer cross the river
cross two shooting stars
in swell
after swell sweat a dew
pooling too soon in collarbones

i try to pray i walk
to the chapel kneel down to

last summer’s ache hello
mouth full of spit near green river

i recite from memory
head of myrrh, afterthought

riding a horse no saddle before the bell tolls to wake me
predawn gray knitted into soft lids of the love swollen quiet

walk to the chapel where i pray with a fervor i pray
for the pearl beyond brassy din of words like
a square jaw, clenched fist, fake cream & violet

instead of breast milk, rose water, spare me
from analysis spare me from spit & swell

gregorian chants a rosary silver hymn
i want to slip on dress me devout
like a woman abandoned by desire
leave me standing by the river to pray

i don’t know how to leave

so i paint my lips in scent
of flowers a browning crimson
i crouch in velvet moss i kneel

to the crucible of earth i dig
til a dirt path is exposed, wind-
ing through city once forest

around & through, ribboning
my urge to touch everyone
does it matter what shade

i leave etched in dirt?
outline of lips to be smudged
by passing travelers

bloom & blood stamped to dust
coiling fragrant on the wind
for someone else to taste i

think the details count
and some count more than others
we could call it red

but when i wore this same crimson
to bed with my love
its undertone a curling bark

each of my limbs curled toward
i don’t know. destiny?
i came to dig and can’t say

who asked me to kiss the ground
enough times for hundreds of feet
to wipe away the evidence

Patrycja Humienik, daughter of Polish immigrants, is a writer and movement artist based in Seattle, WA. Her poetry is featured/forthcoming in Passages North, Hobart, The Shallow Ends, Four Way Review, Third Point Press, and No Tender Fences: An Online Anthology of Immigrant & First-Gen Poetry, among others. Find her on twitter @jej_sen.

2020 Poetry

Cecilia Savala


Fit: archaic, from the Old English—Circa AD 888: a poem in
sections, a part. In pieces, to be tied. Canto. To dance. Fit: to do lists
esp. in January. A holiday verb: to fit into yoga pants, to lose 35
pounds, 30 inches, to fit in a workout. To fit in: one of the nameless
masses. Buff. Shredded. To weigh in on a suitable quality, standard,
type. AD 1325: Conflict. Struggle. Fit: market psychology’s consensus
of the condition of being physically well. Strong. Powerful. Healthy,
esp. by regular physical exercise: to be the right shape. Muscular.
Tough. To fulfill a particular role: i.e. fit to be a mother. To meet the
required purpose as set forth. Impersonal, to agree: obsolete, late 16th
century. To make fit, to render as competent, to force. The prescribed
formula: three times per week. Mass times the force of gravity: to
determine a particular position or place. Vigorous. Trim. To fit: to
occupy a specific size, shape, or number. Fit: appropriate and
correct. Worthy. Except: to have a fit.

Cecilia Savala is a student at the University of Central Missouri where she is majoring in English Education and is the Editor in Chief of Arcade Magazine. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Barrelhouse, and Mangrove Journal, among others.

2020 Fiction

Dustin M. Hoffman


Pike told me, over lunchbreak burritos, how him and his old lady set the bedspread on fire again last night. Second time this month, tenth time this year. I kept a secret tally, marked in orange paint, inside the work trailer’s wall. I expected Pike to die any day. It’s not like I wished him and his old lady dead. It just seemed a matter of inevitability, like painting jobs drying up in winter, like the fact that my back would give out if I kept doing this gig.

Pike licked sour cream off his index finger, which ended at a nub middle knuckle. He never told me that story, how he lost it. Maybe his old lady bit it off. He never shared the stories I wanted, just over and over again how he woke to smoke, thick and black and tarry from the synthetic weave of his comforter. No flames, he claimed. Instead, heat smoldered against their naked bodies. Always naked, of course, because that’s how they lived, naked and smoking, their asses bared for fate.

They were both disgusting specimens. I was reminded of this every day as I witnessed Pike’s crooked teeth, yellow as corn kernels. His hair hung thick with grease, his face pinched into a constant grimace, his whole body an act of twisted compression. And she showed up on site often to visit Pike, to demand he hand over his pack of cigarettes. She’d practice her sport of harassing him while he rolled out walls. Pencil dick, she’d say. Bent-cock motherhumper. Always kissing your boss’s asshole, she’d chant at him, and he’d look strangled, turning purple with shame, but he’d never return an insult.

Every night, they returned home to join their hideous nude bodies in bed, where they’d smoke. Their commitment to doom was unbreakable. Here was love, a promise to burn in your partner’s secondhand fire, while I returned to my pair of cats who mostly hid under the bed.

At work, I’d finish cutting the wall, finish painting the room, fold up the drop cloth, lock up a house transmuted by a fresh skin of blue paint or wheat-yellow or throbbing white. I’d drive my truck away with clean tools, drive right to my beautiful boss proffering a final paycheck, wishing me good luck in life, wishing me better than him and Pike, and then I’d move to better jobs sitting behind glowing screens. Better jobs, better jobs, I’d whisper to myself. In my head, Pike and his girlfriend have married. They keep growing younger, gorgeous and vital. She’s pregnant. Pike’s finger grew back. Their teeth have gone white, their hair silky and full. Their bed blazes, flames flashing every color we ever painted, and every color we never could dream.

Dustin M. Hoffman writes stories about working people. He’s the author of the story collection No Good for Digging and the fiction chapbook Secrets of the Wild (Word West Press). His first book One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist (University of Nebraska Press) won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and his PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior ReviewAlaska Quarterly ReviewPuerto del SolMasters ReviewWitnessQuarterly WestThe JournalWigleafThe Adroit JournalFaultline, and a bunch of other neat places. He lives in South Carolina and teaches creative writing and literature at Winthrop University.

2020 Poetry

Jose Hernandez Diaz


“Arboles de la barranca
Porque no han enverdecido
Es que no los han regado con agua del rio florido
Me puse amar a una mujer con la ilusión de amar….”

-Mexican Ranchera.

My American friends think I’m too Mexican.
My Mexican friends think I’m too American.
My Mexican-American friends are my road dogs.

Mi gusto es escribir poesía toda la noche
y toda la mañana.
Mi gusto es escribir poesía toda la noche
y toda la mañana.

I don’t like my chile too hot; I like it just right.
I don’t like my chile too hot; I like it just right.

When I’m drinking on the weekend,
And I play “Arboles de la Barranca,”
It doesn’t matter whose singing it,
I feel 100% Mexican—those trumpets, damn.

I put ketchup in my breakfast burrito;
I put ketchup in my breakfast burrito:

Con la ilusión de amar.

Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. His work appears in The American Poetry Review, Bat City Review, Cincinnati Review, Gigantic Sequins, Huizache, Iowa Review, The Nation, Poetry, The Progressive, Witness, and in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. His chapbook of prose poems, The Fire Eater, was published on 2/14/20 with Texas Review Press. He tweets at @JoseHernandezDz.

2020 Poetry

Emilie Menzel


Not recognizing my personhood has been problematic to me in the past, but my savagery is genderless and sleeps my body into exhaustion. Not everything we touch must touch the high holy. Not all nights are undrugged sleep. Bathing is a way to feel small inside a soap dish. Bathing is a way to practice your folding.

A sweet little savagery, he tells me, you exhibit, my lips licked. I leave my gloves folded tidy at the edge of the sink, turn to face him. There’s a too large dose of his first person crowding my consciousness lately. It is a bizarre little body, but we keep it as a specimen, a lab rat pet. And what is a speed of want?

She builds a ladder from the roof, climbs the sky like a bird. But have you heard of a bird needing a step stool, slowly the spilling swallows: torsos reared, mouths ready to bite, it’s feeling freshly horrored, it’s in the dream my mouth gaping, crowding with carapace, with trees.

​​Emilie Menzel is a poet, writer, and finder. Her writing has appeared with Black Warrior ReviewMichigan Quarterly Review, and Tupelo Quarterly, amongst others, and she is the recipient of the Deborah Slosberg Memorial Award in Poetry (selected by Diana Khoi Nguyen) and Cara Parravani Memorial Award in Fiction (selected by Leigh Newman). Emilie is the curator of The Gretel, a contributing editor for The Seventh Wave, and a children’s librarian in-training. She lives in wooded North Carolina.

2020 Poetry

Kim Sousa


You were the size of one of the snails I used to race
in Tio Pedro’s backyard. Raised like livestock in miniature
in a small wooden hutch. Here, I made a hutch for you,
split it from myself:

a uterine sac.

The doctors insist, but I cannot be blameless in this.
I have pulled snails from their shells and run them through herbed butter.
I’ve sopped them up with crusty bread. Alone in France,
trying to shape my loneliness into something fashionable—an aperitif.

Home in Brazil, I have broken
so many chicken necks, plucked so many feathers, seen the cuy

split open, stuck through
and flattened onto spits at the feira. I might reach for a papaya, instead,

but the gaze has its own appetites.

They would not call yours a death, Little Snail.
Instead, a loss. I could not keep you.

Now, a pain pill lulls me to sleep.
The curtain between us flutters

somewhere out of reach.

Go / Stay.

If life does not begin at conception, death does.

I made a death.

I am the screaming steam loosening flesh from spiral shell.
I follow, cloaked in my grief.

I am the scythe.

Unwitting blade.

Kim Sousa is a Brazilian-American poet and open border radical. Her work can be found in Poet Lore, Rogue Agent, Apogee, Blunderbuss and elsewhere. She has poems forthcoming in Pidgeonholes, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Duende, among others. In 2019, she organized Pittsburgh’s all-Latinx chapter of Christopher Soto, et al.’s “Writers for Migrant Justice” nation-wide protest collective benefiting Immigrant Families Together and co-edited the benefit anthology of immigrant and first-generation poetry, No Tender Fences, which donated 100% of its proceeds to RAICES Texas. She is currently at work on her first full-length manuscript and at home again in Austin, Texas with her two senior pugs and her familiar, a black cat.

2020 Poetry

Mackenzie Kozak

prayer without crescent-shape

lord, now i am one to quarrel. 
once pristine, a trope to keep 
replaying, figment furrowed 
in the curtain. how i was full
of quivering and you stunned 
me stone. then i began to keep
away from surfaces. but now 
if i hear dismal, doomed, 
and leak my orchid, which 
finesses me. if i relish in 
that injury. then i am one 
to watch the sky for voltage, 
which was promised me. 
or an answer like a surgery 
removed from breath. i heard
withhold. i drew a charcoal 
rim, another. clasped the eyelets 
up my length. you want to give 
and take away when i am 
heavy with beckoning. taken 
in a trance, having given up. 
i wait for something stern 
to medicate me. or a hell 
set into motion, swallowing me. 
it never comes. there are other
arrivals, dewy. you did insist. 

when my love is not a subcontinent 

often you inhabit only a small strip of land 
upon which you pitch and decay 

how, meandering further into the beyond, 
a rattling ensues 

you could say that what is primal in us 
perpetually sheds itself, making room

or glows so sharply in the night 
the whole island trembles 

tell me about the need for nuisance, 
and, when it comes, the stench

or tell me you have found a new surface 
to stain with breathing

or tell me you have found yourself forlorn,
marooned at the thought 

of exile, and press me open, a landing, 
your sounds sharp with sand 

Mackenzie Kozak is a poet living in Asheville, NC. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Journal, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, jubilat, Poetry Northwest, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. Mackenzie serves as an associate editor at Orison Books and Asheville Poetry Review. Her manuscript, in place of a mouth & far-flung, was a finalist of the National Poetry Series.

2020 Poetry

Kelly Grace Thomas


I empty the day
like a bottle. Toss, try
and truce this body
mine. Ours. Body,
you, a river, I name
and rename. Last year wobbles
on her soggy bones. Tonight, I spill

for you. Confess my father
was a heavy pour. He raised me
in song. Our family, a vine
still weeping towards sea.
We couldn’t drink
the body out
of us. And isn’t water
another way to say
body? I practice tender
in the mirror. Quiet
my hips, curved
like a quotation mark.
Bless, bless, bless
these elbows
and anxiety. All these bones
and brackets.

Body, I walked to Arkansas
to say I’m sorry
for the distance and the diet
pills. I’m sorry for the silence.
Maybe I just needed to write you
from somewhere new. To thank you,
my quiet parenthesis.
To promise: keep me
and I’ll keep you.
My steady
grammar. Listen,
this rain needs a bed.


Outside my window a crow
circles what it can get.
I’m three nights from love.
Always between here
and home. Six service
stations past self help
stereo hum. Omid
means hope. I’ve never told
a prayer that. Out my car window,

the wheat fields kneel
for water. We learn
landscape. Trapped
inside. Today I read
the most important thing
a father can do
for his children
is love
their mother.
This is not that.
Not the prayer
where I help myself. Not
the prayer where someone
says sunrise and I talk
story. Not the prayer where I know
what to do with silence
besides pass it
on the left. Maybe

one day. For now
I measure the distance
between the men I’ve loved
like a country
still thirsty
for rain.

Kelly Grace Thomas is the author of Boat Burned, released by YesYes Books. Kelly’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: Best New Poets 2019, the Los Angeles Review, Tinderbox, Nashville Review, Sixth Finch, Muzzle, DIAGRAM and more. Kelly has received fellowships from Tin House, Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, Kenyon Review Young Writers’ and more. Kelly is the Education and Pedagogy Advisor for Get Lit-Words Ignite, a youth poetry nonprofit. She is the co-author of Words Ignite: Explore, Write and Perform, Classic and Spoken Word Poetry (Literary Riot). Kelly is also a screenwriter and novelist. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, Omid.