2020 Poetry

Victoria C. Flanagan


My father taught me well: you can split whole cords
with a chipped maul & still forsake

the shed. Proof: corner store ruptured
by weeds chin-high, even the school

has closed. Out here, tire plants landmark,
mill men drift and jaw on:

If you cut both a man’s hands from his body,
even his family will think him dead.

Father, debtor, crankhead, snitch.

No one revenge will do—you need belief
of one kind or another. Steam idles over

the recycling plant, slack bales queue up
in these, our dry fields, & his bones

won’t thaw before March.

To be girl in a place where bruise
is prelude—we all learn quick.

Can’t speak clear of a name, my father
taught me well: Out here, you ask a man for mercy

he’ll spit and call you senseless.

You ask the land to spare you,
it gives you sons instead.

Victoria C. Flanagan holds a dual-genre MFA in poetry and creative nonfiction from Virginia Commonwealth University. A finalist for the 2019 BOAAT Chapbook Prize and the Akron Poetry Prize, their writing has been awarded the Catherine and Joan Byrne Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the 2018 Emerging Poets Prize from Palette Poetry, and a Sewanee Writers’ Conference scholarship, among other honors. Flanagan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in New South, Crab Creek Review, Palette Poetry, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blackbird, among other journals. They serve as nonfiction editor for Anomaly and teach in central Washington.

2020 Poetry

Gabriella R. Tallmadge


Your kiss said rooms of bison, tasting of bright

history—final and rundown. You said nothing

until I roamed to your mouth, your jars, your door

to color. I was not a girl in that room.

You said I was godly, your last. It was the snow

in your empty hands. Your fur at midnight,

its black carry. The stars were ticking

with milk in the sky’s old balcony.

I could not contain my stay for you. You

who pinned a ruined prayer to my collar.

Each night I drowned under the drumming

of the ocean’s great retelling and at morning

you’d wake with my skin in your teeth

like bread in the mouth of the starving.

Gabriella R. Tallmadge is a Latinx writer and educator from San Diego, California. Her poetry has received awards from the Hedgebrook Writer in Residence Program, the Community of Writers Workshop, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Gabriella’s poems have previously appeared in The Georgia Review, Crazyhorse, Guernica, Mid-American Review, and Best New Poets. You can find links to more of her work at  

2020 Fiction

McKenzie Zalopany


“Binch, we are out front open up,” Matty yells in a fake cop voice, while pounding on my front door. My dog Samson makes a motion to get up and thinks better of it. Even he doesn’t approve of her and Seraphina, who I know is close behind Matty.

Last night, Seraphina texted me to say that Matty from two units over, the one who shaves her arms, found the Fountain of Youth but I’m calling bull. For one thing, both girls lie all the time. They’re always pretending to wear designer clothes, but I know for a fact it’s glitz from the flea market. Also, we just learned about the Fountain of Youth in class and two days later they find it? Matty says that because her dad’s name is Leon, she’s a descendant. His first name is Leon. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that’s not how that works. I don’t like them much in real life, but it’s nice to hang outside of school and not act like we’re anything more than Buena Vista Apartments bonded. I’ve got my clique and they have a gaggle of dudes who smoke them out.

I’ve got to give them props too, because they were hanging with me when fat was considered fat not thick. My weight hasn’t changed, but it’s very cool now to be curvy via social media. Plus, we play Barbies together on the D.L. and since we do it together, they can’t say shit.

“You get all your chores done Cinder-belly?” Matty asks letting herself into the apartment. Out of the two, she is the boldest and will probably fulfill my mom’s premonition of, “Being in a bad way come fourteen.” Seraphina acts like she’s grown because she’s the only sixth grader on the pill, but she doesn’t say it’s because of her back-ne. They both are mean like their moms.

I follow behind them because I really am done with my chores and have an hour before my mom comes home.

Shuffling through the parking lot we pass the pool boys who are men who always sit outside with no tee-shirts and no pool. Even though the Fall wind in Florida isn’t much to shiver about they sit there half naked and glistening, while we walk heads down, hands tucked in our hoodie pockets clutching our phones, ready. They don’t say a word, but you don’t need words when eyes are touching each part of our bodies.

I’m used to the hollers, sort of. At eight, a forty-year-old man whispered, “Nice thighs,” when my mom was in the bathroom. He said it all quick and quiet on his way by our table. He scared me and when my mom came back, I didn’t say anything, and she kept asking me what was wrong. After that, it seemed like some sort of switch went off or maybe I was just aware, because I got flagged down by all sorts of dudes who wanted not just my thighs.

I don’t even have my period yet, which scares me, a ticking tongue that’s yet to unhinge. I’ve had boobs since I was eight and an ass before that. What will I look like come my monthly?

They lead me to the little forest that conceals the parking lot to the Winn-Dixie lot. It’s small and gets smaller and smaller each year but if I squint when I’m in the middle I can pretend that I am lost and on some sort of adventure. Scattered around the pine needled flooring there’s old Coors cans, napkins, a milk crate. Mom told me to never go in here ever, never, ever, but I know these woods like the back of my hand, and I can’t imagine they found a fountain here. We head away from the path to the grocery store and toward the really, really, no-no area, which is the back part of the complex that kind of dilapidated into itself and turned into makeshift homes.

As I get older it’s easier to break the invisible boundary lines my mom has set for me.

We stop in front of one those run-off sewers that are scattered around Florida backgrounds. If you squint, it looks like a creek. Matty and Seraphina have never seen a creek, never been as far as Tampa. I wait for them to cross or go around, but they look at me with ta-da faces. Their hair in identical high messy buns, eye shadow in bright green and pink shades.

“Are you guys planning on murdering me here?”

“Don’t be dumb If I was going to kill someone I would like kill them in their home wearing shoes two sizes bigger and gloved the fuck up,” Matty says annoyed, “I’d be like smarter than that guy–what’s his name from that show?”

“O.J.?” I ask.

“Yeah, that dude.”

“I think I’d find some pigs, they eat anything,” Seraphina says without looking up from her phone.

“Well, I’ll kill you both right here, right now, if you’re messing with me. Nothing special about this water,” I tell them and give them my best withering look. The fountain of Youth sounded bougie. White marble, maybe some baby angels crafted on top of a three-tiered circular bowl situation. Not a sewer creek with a plastic bag with a little rose image over the words, Thank You Thank You Thank You.

“Binch, we aren’t messing with you. We found this place to smoke and thought it was gross as fuck, so we started throwing shit in it and well look,” Matty says, bending down and drops a dead branch that had been near her feet into the brackish water. We all stare at the branch and wait.

Nothing happens.

“It takes a second,” Seraphina reassures me. It felt earnest, so I waited.

I know I am in sixth grade, but I wish we were playing Barbies or just chilling in my room. Sometimes at night I cry, because I miss boys touching me from when I was in elementary school P.E. or crisscrossed in class. Their hands did not linger but slammed into my body and left it quick. Tag you’re it.

My phone rings making us all jump. The screen read, MOM.

“Shit, I got to go.”

“Jemma, it will be like two more seconds!” Seraphina beckons after me.

“I’m not waiting around to get grounded for this,” I yell back, fast walking away. When I turn around, they are following me back to our separate doors and the brown branch is a brown branch in the brown water.

My mom isn’t home when I get back, thankfully. Samson greets me at the door, just like my dad would do every day after school. “Tell me three good parts and one bad part of your day,” he would always prompt. My mom named our dog even though I found him. I wanted to name him Costco because we found him at the Costco parking lot, but mom thought Samson was a better name, plus he’s shaggy. I love him mostly because he reminds me a lot of my dad even though my dad died before we found Samson. But they have the same hair and Samson hates loud things and sneezes a lot. I don’t know how much longer I have with him, because like I said, I found him, and he was fully grown when I was seven.

My mom is a talented seamstress and does private bookkeeping on the side. She is obviously tired a lot so when I get home from school, I like to have everything cleaned for her, so she knows I love her. I also feel guilty because she works so hard for me and I don’t really like school, or believe in god, or hang out with girls she approves of. I don’t really want to be anything when I get older except maybe like a social media influencer, which my mom doesn’t really understand but I’ve got around five thousand followers. If I get over 100K I could take my mom around the world, to sponsored hotels and meals and drive around a nice ass car. My mom would wear nice clothes that she wouldn’t have to mend, and she could take my pictures.

If the Fountain of Youth really existed, I’d throw my mom in it. She was pretty, like model pretty, and we could be an internet duo. Samson nips at my hand that’s texting while I’m pretending to pay attention to my mom during dinner. It’s such a thing my dad would’ve done, who always poked at me when I wasn’t giving my full attention.

In the morning, there is a tree branch that is with leaves so green and lush it looked like Spring itself had knocked on the door. The trees above are all brown and dead.

“I fuckin hate this place,” mom says and kicks the branch aside, “can you believe this? We have maintenance guys and yet there’s trash everywhere. Hurry up Jemma, what you are waiting for?”

I take a picture of the branch and send it to Matty and Seraphina:

J: H a h a V funny.

M: u still don’t believe us

S: Lewk like ny trees 2 u???? That was sum green lushness

J: not fallin 4 it

M: girl bye

Seraphina just sends me the middle finger emoji four times.

Reasons my dad also reminds me of Samson: They both sleep a lot. They both aren’t helpful around the house or able to financially contribute. They love every and all types of food. Gets super hyper whenever I get excited about something. Guilts mom into walking around outside. Loves me and mom equally, more than anything.

Matty and Seraphina must not have been too mad because they are playing dolls at my place. Every day I have two hours before my mom comes home. She doesn’t care that I do kid stuff, but I hide my dolls as if I were watching porn or something. We play house with Barbies or fashion show or sometimes make them fuck. When we get bored of that we talk shit about the people in our class or just sit around and take cute pictures of each other, but never of the three of us together. Neither of them has a following but I still try and craft a cute photo. I’m glad they’re no longer trying to talk me into believing in the sewer creek but then Matty asks me if I want to go try again and see for myself.

“Come on you still have forever until your mom gets back and you’ve cleaned the house to the point of hospital grade sanitation.”

“Why are you even still trying with her we should call like Bay News 10 or something? Let everyone know it was us who discovered it.”

“You can’t tell people shit like that,” Matty says, “This is something people will like take too far, watch a movie.”

I consider this, even though I know the fountain isn’t real, Matty has a point.

“If we went what would we put in the water? I know you two want to be older so you aren’t going in yourselves.”

“I just got boobs are you kidding me,” Seraphina asks, “What about Sam.” She points to Samson who has been laying in the corner with one eye open, watching us judgingly as we made Barbie hump another Barbie. Stop being a weirdo, dad.

“Fuck you, I’m not throwing my dog in there.”

“The worst that could happen is he’d get a little dirty and you’d have to give him a bath, no biggie,” Matty says.

“Don’t you want Sam to live longer?” Seraphina asks.

“I don’t even know why we agreed to tell her about it,” Matty says and gets up, “Let’s go.”

They both head for the door and Samson gives me this face my dad gave me, not before he was going to die, or even when he was sick but before we knew about it. He gave me this look when we were at a traffic stop and a car almost hit us and I screamed, Fuck. I was six and my dad turned around not in anger or shock, but he looked like he loved me more than anything else in the world. Like twin souls who had found each other. He laughed and said my thoughts exactly. Samson could be three or could be eighteen for all I knew.

“Okay, okay,” I shout after them, “Samson, come.”

When I told my best friend from school, Alex, that I hadn’t gotten my period, she told everyone. By seventh period everyone knew. I almost slammed her into a locker I was so mad, but then she was all casual and told me that all the boys said that it was hot. My anger turned into fear. Boys thought that was hot. I felt like there was a target on my back. I started getting nudes on the daily. Girls wrote my number in the bathrooms. I was known for fucking even though I’d only been fingered once in a movie theater. And I really didn’t get anything out of the experience except for sheer panic. I kept worrying that he had masturbated earlier and had gotten semen on his finger, the one inside me, and that I would be pregnant even though I couldn’t be pregnant, but I could get my period any day so who knew when I was ovulating.

How can I stop something so inevitable and yet how can I start something that I don’t want to come so boys won’t find it hot?

I left the house so fast I didn’t change into anything less comfortable. In soffe’s, a tank top, and slides my body bounced: belly, boobs, ass, thighs.

I hear the pool boys before I see them.

“This one’s going to break hearts between her thighs.”

“You even realize that mama’?”

“Shut up, she ain’t old enough chill.”

“Why her mouth look like that then?”

My mouth was open, trembling. All my life I walked by the pool boys. It’s me, Jemma? I used to drive my pink motorized car by them. They once cheered me when I rode my bike with no trainers.

“Shut the fuck up,” Matty calls, “Is your mom still washing your shirts or something?” We left them calling us bitches and teases, but they never left their chairs. Seraphina and Matty are calling them little dicked pervs. Samson happily zig zags in front of me. My dad would do the same thing too. Like, he could never be taken anywhere, because he was a big kid who wanted to touch everything. Flea markets were annoying. Fun too. It didn’t make any sense to me when the doctors said he was sick, because he looked like dad or a movie ticket guy who is good at sports. If anyone, I thought it would be my mom who would eat it first. After the diagnosis and even a few months after my dad still zig zagged around. He looked fine, handsome and all touchy kissy with mom. I watch Samson oaf-ing around the parking lot and sometimes licking my hand like, Jemma baby where too?

When we get to the Fountain Sewer, I consider my options, my hands still trembling. The worst that could happen, like Matty had said, was that Samson would be dirty and I’d have to bathe him. What if I went in instead? Each year I’d go in it again and again hitting the reset button. I would really be a social media influencer then. I would never have to worry about my period or worry about getting it. Never in my life had I felt bad for being overweight or full figured. Never in my life have I felt so out of control or unable to grasp the power of womanhood. We all do it though, but maybe I wouldn’t have to.

“What are you weirdly staring?” Seraphina asks.

“She looks like she’s thinking about banging one of the pool boys,” Matty jokes, “Let’s move, mommy will need you home soon.”

The water is a puce brown. There are weeds entwined with Dorito bags and napkins at the edge. The only movement from the water is the little mosquitoes that skim the surface. Samson is still, my dad never liked swimming much. But I did.

I could age back and never have to deal with shit. I could be famous, The Girl Who Doesn’t Age. Does Not Die. But then my mom would have to take care of me forever.

The water gurgles, the smell of pork starch wafts upwards.

Maybe I’ll test Samson first.

I release Samson from his leash, “Sit,” I command. From my bra I take out a dog treat and wave it in front of his face. Matty and Seraphina stop texting and watch us, whispering something but I could care less. Samson is staring at my hand, his hind legs scooching slightly toward me. Dad always gave me his utmost attention. I throw the treat and Samson is in the air for half a second and smacks into the water spraying us in his plight.

“Shit!” Matty yells looking down at her dirt water flaked shirt, “I didn’t think you’d actually do it dumbass.”

Seraphina is laughing, but it is forced and cruel, “Holy fuck, I thought this would be funnier but, aw, look at poor Samson.”

Out from the water he shakes his shaggy mane, more water gets on us. Matty and Seraphina are still playing the game. They pretend to run away from us as if I’m going to chase them, run after them embarrassed and slapping their backs, calling them names but softer names than the pool boys. They can and I can hear their would be giggles in the chase, tag you’re it. In their heads, they see me shamefully presenting Samson to my mom but never explaining what had happened, because we are bonded, and we keep that shit on the D.L.

“Come on Jemma, come on girl we were just playing,” Seraphina said to me.

Samson proudly presents his treat at my feet. Matty and Seraphina bodies are somewhere in this pathetic wood that hides nothing. My phone rings, which gets me on my feet. I know they didn’t film me because we aren’t friends in the real world. They will not post my captured naivety or stupidity. I can see the Winn Dixie and my apartment door and theirs. I can hear the pool boys whooping at them as they emerge out from the trees. But the pool boys had never lost track of our bodies.

My phone rings and rings and rings.

McKenzie Zalopany is a queer writer based out of the Tampa Bay area. She is a MFA student at the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared in Cut Bank, Tulane Review, Superstition Review, and has been nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. Her work revolves around representing sexuality, disability, and the LGBT+ community.

2020 Fiction

Hadley Franklin


I’ve never been fast. Not physically, that is. Someone, for who knows what reason, commissioned a videographer to film my preschool class for a full year and edit the footage into a three hour VHS of children just beyond infancy wandering through a scraggly churchyard in puffy winter coats and playing with their velcro shoes at story-time and eating crackers with deliberation, crumbs tumbling onto collars and corduroy laps. And there I am in my own puffy violet coat on an outing to a farm, the camera wobbling between the goats and the children, all bleating and sniffing one another. The group rushes ahead toward the hen house and I lag behind, rounding a red barn corner, dreamy and solemn. The teacher prompts me to run and I stumble forward a few feet, then stop. Why compete, I imagine my smaller self thinking, where I will never excel? Why suffer defeat where I won’t taste victory? I found my strength in story-time, where word by word, I read aloud, a white knit blanket tied around my shoulders as a cape. I learned quickly, I read quickly, my vocabulary sped forward. But I ran, I continue to run, slowly.

I think of this now as I begin my morning jog around the neighborhood. Because I despise every second of this exercise. Every ragged, pink-faced breath, every rhythmic pound of my sneaker against pavement. I hate running in place at stoplights while men stream by in their cars, heads twisted to watch my breasts bounce. I hate the sweat that crawls in dark stains over my belly and back.

I am slogging past the bagel shop with its yeasty odors. I am crossing the bridge that arches over the highway, where cars arrested in traffic shift and shimmer, a metallic tapestry, a single huffing, glinting beast.

I’ve begun these morning runs because of Rick. Not so much because of him, but because of his new girlfriend, whom I met while they held hands in the bar last week. Why is it still so strange to to see his hand around another woman’s? I secretly think he was drawn up and breathed into life for me, so he could offer me love, then heartbreak, then a mellow, tapering friendship that will slowly fade him from reality. He once called me a solipsist and I said, But isn’t everyone really? Deep down? and he said, No, Lexi, they’re not, and looked at me with big, pretty martyr eyes. As a kid, I used to get a shivery sensation that there was someone behind me, someone dangerous. I used to imagine it was another me that was following me, but a bad version, an ugly, twisted version with wild hair and a bludgeoned look to her eyes. It made me afraid then, but no longer. I think maybe she still lives there, trailing my shadow. Maybe we’ve become friends, and at night, we rock each other to sleep.

I am running up the hill between two avenues. No, I’m doing a lunging walk up the hill because actual running is too hard and my calves burn and I’m panting so loud people turn around to watch me struggle. I’m passing this grand, cheesy hall of 1970’s glamour, white brocade and chandeliers, gold spires on the iron gate. I want to lie on a bear skin rug in that hall, my gasping body flush with the dead one below.

The girlfriend is cute. She smiled at me like I might devour her. She is short and slim and has little doll features. She’s the kind of girl guys like to hoist over their shoulders. The kind of girl who memorized rap lyrics in college because she thought it would be funny to repeat them in her little white girl voice.

She is new in his life, and I could tell her things. He got drunk sometimes and woke up in bad places– the bathtub in a shallow of vomit, the stairway mysteriously missing his shoes, a bus station bench with a dog lapping vigorously at the crotch of his jeans. Once, he threw a quarter at our bathroom window and the whole thing shattered. Once, on a bus between Philadelphia and New York, he had food poisoning and shit himself, and since the bus bathroom was out-of-order and locked, he had to sit in his own shit for an hour.

These aren’t stories to dissuade her from dating Rick. I just want to scrub the shine off a little. Is that really so wrong? To ask her to see things honestly?

The sidewalk evens out and trees flap their leaves above me. The concrete is dappled with light and I try only to step in the shadowed bits, as if I could stamp out the sun by accident. Someone driving past shouts, “Hey lady! Wanna fuck?” then laughs and zips away. I could chase down the car. I could shimmy in through the open window, sprawl onto the driver’s lap, peel off my shorts, and when he stares with surprise, I could ask, “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

The new girlfriend made me feel oversized and clumsy. She had a quick, hiccupy laugh. She made me feel slow. So I decided to run, to make my body a machine, fight pain for glory, and so on, like a sports drink commercial. The truth is, I haven’t felt well lately. The truth is, I’ve been churning through life underwater, and all I see is the deep, soundless black of the ocean. The truth is, I wouldn’t want him back, but oh, how I want a hand in a bar to fold over mine.

Hadley Franklin’s work has appeared in NarrativePalimpsestRunaway Parade, and Hanging Loose. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and earned an MFA in fiction from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. She teaches literature and writing at a special education school in New York and lives in Brooklyn.

2020 Poetry

Kiran Bath

Kiran Bath is a poet and essayist from Brooklyn by way of Sydney. She is a 2019 Poets House Fellow and is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Tin House, Vermont Studio Center, and Brooklyn Poets. Her work was shortlisted for the Peach Gold in Poetry and has been nominated for the Best of The Net. Her writing appears in wildness, The Adroit Journal, Lunch Ticket and elsewhere.

2020 Essays

Brenda Venezia



Your tía hates to have her picture taken and she’ll leave the room when the cameras come out, even for family pictures when everyone gets together—well, almost everyone. But she helped raise a lot of the kids in this family, including you. I don’t know if you think about that. She loves her yerbitas and natural remedies, and she grows a lot of her own there at the house. She watches the news and has a running hierarchy of which political commentators are the best and which are garbage. She is the best, pero la mera mera, at making games and toys of out of the stuff people think of as trash. Like these: see this stack of little yogurt containers? She washed and saved these for El Nene—be sure to take these with you when you go, don’t forget—there are only sixteen of them, she said, but it’s, of course, easy to save more. You just have to think of it. Build towers out of them, use them for pouring games—all the kids loved those when they were about his age; send her a picture if he likes them, okay? Don’t forget—and for sorting little objects or snacks, flip them upside down for matching games, for a little two-person tossing game when he’s a older, and the list goes on. A whole database in her head.

In the 90s she was a real cool girl, with her job and her professional outfits and her little red Toyota and her tiny San Diego apartment with a roommate. Her lips and nails painted burgundy and brown, that dark puta red, you see? She loved that. She didn’t care. Her hair stayed permed and dyed auburn, her big earrings and her little ankle boots, all pointy and laced up with the jeans tucked in. She watched In Living Color and Melrose Place and introduced all that R&B stuff to all you nieces and taught you all how to drive out in the fields when she would visit, no matter how young you all were, que loca. She never told us until after an outing like that—it was always a quick trip to get one of you a huge orange cream soda at Casa Burger or to grab something at the market, like she was doing us all a favor by taking a few of the kids with her to get out of the house, you know? But it’s true, she was real good about taking you to the library when you’d visit, do you remember that? But she’d sneak in those driving lessons. She really trusted all you girls, I guess, que Dios la cuida. Maybe it’s herself she trusted. She had been used to making decisions alone.

You know, she’s the youngest, and didn’t have to work in the fields much. She got out of town pretty early. She used to be a banker at a couple of different places—Wells Fargo, I think—but she didn’t talk with all of us about what she’d do at work. Nowadays, she says she doesn’t sleep much and drinks weak Nescafe starting very early in the morning, maybe to save money, but she insists it’s what she likes and rolls her eyes every time we tell her she should just use the Keurig we took over there for them last year. All those plants and trees she has grown over the years at the house where she and your grandma live are really something, even now—she’s good with them: succulents, fruit trees, yerbas, those big agaves and yuccas up by the street. She’ll probably offer to send you home with pieces of them in a ziploc. It’s been getting harder to take care of them; don’t compliment them. It’s true they are still impressive, but she’ll apologize and get a little upset, to be quite honest. It’s like she won’t believe that you really think they look good anymore. You see, these last few months, when your grandma has been in and out of the facility, everyone thought your tía would get a little bit of a break, some time to catch up on things, but it turned out that everyone, including Abuela, also worried about Mom in that place and, as usual, had lots to say about how she is taken care of. So your tía mostly stays at the facility too when Mom is there.

She never did have any kids. Back in the day, everyone teased her about how much she loved Peabo Bryson—do you even know who that is?—but she was real private about her dating life. Of course, these last—is it ten years now? Well, since your grandpa died and your grandma had to move—she takes care of your grandma and the house and has no time for herself, it’s true, she does everything, and we’re all thankful she does all that, of course, and we know it’s hard, of course. Sometimes she complains, and I used to argue with her, try to defend Mom, but now I try to listen, because none of us know what it’s like, and we all criticize and she has no one to talk to, and I’m sure it’s real hard. But sometimes she complains a lot, and I have to tell her I’m sorry, but I have to go. It’s hard to listen to, you know? Everyone else has their kids and their homes and lives farther away and it’s just easiest for her to do this right now. We all do what we can.

Brenda Venezia teaches at Fresno State. She is the director of Fresno Women Read, a member of the Central Valley Women Writers of Color Collective, and a member of the QPOC collective, Fecund Stitch. Her work has appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Collagist, Puerto Del Sol, Luna Luna Magazine, and elsewhere.

2020 Essays

Renée Mitchell Matsuyama


In the weight room, surrounded by swarms of straight, cisgender brodudes in tank tops, I want to be invisible. I wear spandex shorts long enough to cover my scars, and a loose-fitting T-shirt with the sides cut out—giving me the shoulder mobility of a tank top without the self-consciousness of a fitted shirt. Then there’s my black-and-yellow striped knee sleeves and my grey low top Chucks. Last but not least, my headphones. Even if I forget my iPod at home, I wear my headphones. Otherwise some Straight Cisgender Brodude is bound to come up to me and ask me about my tattoos or offer his advice on my bench form.

In the weight room, I wear my most brutal bitchface. I want to be untouchable. Independent. Unfuckwithable. I enjoy feeling superior to all the Straight Cisgender Brodudes grunting and flexing in my periphery. Knowing I can hold my own in a space not meant for me, and that I am as good as—if not better than—everyone else. I may not be able to lift pound for pound as much as the Brodude next to me, but factor in size and weight differences, I’m kicking his ass. Factor in form and technique, I’m lifting circles around the motherfucker. Lifting makes me feel like a badass. The pleasure I get from lifting isn’t just about being strong, it’s also about appearing strong.


During sex, I want to be put in my place, told what to do, what not to do. I want to be controlled. Owned. Mastered. At my partner’s mercy. I want to give my body completely to whatever she might choose to do with it. Or to it. The more incompetent and imperfect she makes me feel, the better.

I first realized I might prefer sex that goes beyond your average dirty talk or occasional slap on the ass on a Sunday afternoon around four years ago. Sam and I were one of those kinds of relationships that should have been a one-night stand but somehow ended up lasting several years. The kind of relationship your friends talk about with each other behind your back, always with that vaguely condescending tone of worry. The kind of relationship whose long-overdue ending surprises no one except you. The kind of relationship where one week you’re looking at rings and the next week you’re looking for separate apartments. The kind of relationship that, for me at least, makes for some really good sex.

When Sam and I weren’t fighting, we had a Sunday tradition of going to a local record store on our way home from mass (Sam’s Catholic, and I’m—accommodating). Aside from a standing quest for Christmas albums to add to Sam’s collection, we never had a set agenda for our trips. On days that we couldn’t find anything good on the shelves, we’d hit up the “Mystery Bag” bin—a milk crate by the cash register filled with paper-bag-wrapped clusters of vinyl. Five random records for five dollars. Occasionally you’d get a Cat Stevens B-side or an early Queen album, but usually you were spending five dollars on music you’d only ever listen to when you have friends over and they’re looking through your collection and suddenly start laughing and ask, Oh my god why the fuck do you have a Pat Boone record, and then put it on because it’s too hilarious not to.

That Sunday, the “Mystery Bag” gods must have been feeling mischievous, because they decided to drop a Barry White Greatest Hits record in the stash. We played it immediately. We laughed, saying shit like Ooh girl I’m going to sex you good or Yeah come give daddy some sugar in our best attempts at deep-voiced, 70’s porn voices. I think the making out started as a joke, like haha wouldn’t it be funny to make out to this shit. Then suddenly we were making out for real, but my mind kept wandering over to the record. I was having an increasingly hard time suppressing my laughter. When Sam moved her hand down to go inside me, I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Sam, I can’t do this,” I giggled. “We have to turn this off, I can’t focus with this cheesy-ass shit in the background.”

She looked at me with the most serious expression I’d ever seen on her face.

“Don’t you FUCKING DARE turn off that record. I don’t care what you have to do to focus, but you’ve got until I get your pants off. I’m fucking you to Barry White, whether you like it or not.”

And with that, she stood up, bent me over the couch, and fucked me to Barry White. Usually, I need a pretty decent amount of lube for penetrative sex (thanks, Prozac), but from the moment she snapped into Dom-mode I was soaked.


I basically have two ways of being in relationships: overanalyze the shit out of it until I’ve successfully sabotaged whatever could have been there, or adamantly refuse to acknowledge the glaring signs of dysfunction until—well until never I guess. The endings to those relationships are always instigated by the other person.

The first type leave my friends wondering what happened. You two seemed so good together! These relationships generally last a month or two. Once I start feeling smothered, once I sense that someone is falling in love with me. Once we reach the point where, if we keep going, I won’t be able to leave without breaking her heart. The point where I start to lose any interest in sex because I realize I no longer have to work for it.

The second type can last for years. These relationships are with people who keep me in a constant state of insecurity. What I seem to need most is having to work to obtain my partner’s affection—a dynamic in which I am always all in, but my partner is never quite fully in. My sweet spot, it seems, is someone who has such deep-seated trust issues they crave the kind of attention overload I am prone to giving, yet are too afraid of vulnerability to ever fully commit. But these people tend to be crappy partners. At their best, subpar—at their worst, abusive.

Even if these relationships always make me feel like shit emotionally, I have to give them this—the sex is good. That’s the thing though. The sex is good because I feel like shit.


Although I will always have a more productive lift in a near-empty weight room, I enjoy being able to hold my own in a testosterone-glutted, axe-infused gym. I won’t push myself as hard on those days, but I will still leave feeling as satisfied as if I had. Or at least, differently satisfied.

“Hey can I ask you a question?”

I’m at the Y on a Sunday afternoon—the only time the Y’s weight room populace resembles that of an L.A. Fitness instead of a retirement community clubhouse—and I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around to see a muscular dude of average height, mid-twenties, wearing sweats and a ratty tank top. He’s vaguely hipster-ish, with shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair and scruffy facial hair that lands somewhere between five-o’clock-shadow and legit beard. My eyebrows raised, I move one of my headphones just enough to indicate that I heard him, but not enough to imply that I actually give a shit about whatever he wants to say to me.

“Why do you arch your back like that when you bench?”

I soften. I sense enough sincerity in his voice that for a split second, I think he’s asking for advice. For once I am actually a little excited about having to interact with a Straight Cisgender Brodude.

“There are a number of reasons for it. For one thing, arching your back puts your chest higher in the air, reducing the distance you have to move the bar. Another benefit is that, if you get into position right, you create tension in your shoulders that—”

“Well actually, I was asking if you are aware of how bad that is for your back.”

I should have seen that coming. Of course this asshole was here to mansplain my technique to me, not ask for my expertise. Yes, Mr. Straight Cisgender Brodude, I get why you would think that it’s bad for your back, but as I was saying, if you get into position right, it’s actually better for your back because—

“Okay, well I’m a personal trainer, and I just wanted to make sure you knew that you could really hurt yourself. Just trying to look out for ya.”

“Oh my god a trainer? No way! You know who else is? My actual trainer. But really, THANK YOU for your help. I can’t believe I’ve wasted so many years studying and perfecting a time-tested technique when I could have just been consulting you this whole time.”

This interaction rattled me. I was so self-conscious the rest of my lift, eventually I had to cut my losses and go home early. It doesn’t matter that I know my form is on point. It doesn’t matter that I have spent years researching and practicing this method of benching. In that moment, the only thing on my mind was the fact that nothing I could have said or done would have changed his perception of me as just some dumb bitch who clearly had no business trying to hang with the big boys in the weight room.


I’m still not sure why being fucked to deep-voiced baby-making music flipped the switch for me that Sunday with Sam. It’s not like that was the first time I had experienced Dom/sub sexual dynamics, or the first time someone had tried to tell me what to do during sex. Granted, most of those experiences were from before I came out, when I was still fucking cis dudes. But why does that make a difference for me? Why does the thought of a cis dude calling me a slut and forcing me to suck his cock until I choke make me want to scream and cry and vomit because of how degraded it would make me feel—but that same scenario with a woman or a trans guy makes me horny as fuck, precisely because of how degraded it would make me feel? Why does being condescended to by Straight Cisgender Brodudes in the gym make my skin crawl, but the same behavior from a woman or a trans partner during sex can bring me to orgasm?


Andi was the first person after Sam I’d consider a “relationship.” We only dated for three months, but things got intense fast. For the first two months, I thought Andi might be my soulmate. Well, sexual soulmate at least.

I forget exactly how we discovered our symbiotic sexual preferences. I think I texted something sort of submissive-y one day and he was like Oh yeah? Tell me more… But once discovered, it escalated quickly. He didn’t mind my scars—he liked them. He wanted to add more. Sam used to throw away my razor blades whenever she found them. Andi would buy extras to make sure I always had enough.

By this point, exploring kink wasn’t new. What was new was the hitting. The choking. The bruises. All this shit I used to fantasize about someone doing and saying to me—Andi was down with it. Not just down with it, he was into it. Most of the time I didn’t even have to tell him what I wanted him to do; he’d have already thought of it. The first time he backhanded me while we were fucking I had to bust out the safe word—not because I didn’t like it, but because I was so shocked he knew I wanted to be hit without my having mentioned it that I needed a minute to process. From then on though, I trembled with excitement every time I thought he was about to slap the fuck out of me.

During the day, Andi would assure me that this isn’t “who he is,” that he only likes that kind of shit in character. “You know I’ll stop the moment it goes too far, right babe? You know I’d never actually hit you, right?”

At first, I thought I knew. I thought I knew this was just a sexual preference, and not a reflection of his character. I mean, I like to be hit and spit on and told to shut the fuck up you dirty slut before I have to shove my strap-on in your mouth and force you to shut up—and I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with me. So it has to be true that someone can like doing those things and also still be a good person. Right?

Sometimes it would take Andi a few minutes to stop after I invoked the safe word. I’d say it over and over, so he had to have heard me, but I’d tell myself it’s got to be hard to snap out of character all of a sudden like that. Plus, he always had to be at least six shots of Jamo deep before we started fucking, and he’d usually end up taking two or three more during, so I figured that also probably contributed to the occasional lag time. And he was so sweet during the day. He couldn’t have been actually abusive. He just got a little carried away sometimes when he was drunk. Or at least, that’s what I kept telling myself. He was always so contrite when he remembered having done (or I told him that he did) something kind of traumatic to me, it was hard to begrudge him for what he did while drunk. Like the time I was curled up on the floor next to my bed crying while he oscillated between pacing the room, punching the wall, and screaming two inches from my face about how fucking dare I tell our mutual friend about him cheating on me. Sure, he slept with two different women in one weekend because I was out of town and he was worried I might sleep with my ex (I didn’t), so he beat me to it just in case. But that’s his fucking business and I had no fucking right to tell her and what if she tells his fucking sister? He doesn’t need her or the rest of his judgmental family knowing his shit; he already has enough to deal with since coming out to them as trans. Seriously, what the FUCK is wrong with you. Stop fucking crying and covering your face like you think I’m going to hit you. You want me to hit you? You want a real reason to cry? Just say it, just fucking say it and I swear to god I’ll fucking SLAP THE SHIT OUT OF YOU RIGHT NOW.


I love the adrenaline rush you get from hitting a heavy set that you weren’t sure you were going to make. It’s a release. But not like an orgasm. Or like crying. It’s not how cutting feels, or like purging after a binge. No, the release of a good lift is more like how it feels when you’ve been stuck for what feels like years on level forty-something of whatever game you’re playing and you’re on your last life and you’ve been on this level forever and those stupid fucking jellybeans or whatever the fuck won’t do what you want them to and you don’t think you’re going to make it, oh shit you’re definitely not going make it, but then FUCK YEAH. Finally!

Or how it feels when you ace an exam you thought you were going to bomb, or get accepted into that top-tier grad program you had no business even applying to but you did it anyway because fuck it why not. The release you get from hitting a heavy set feels like sex and power and accomplishment and pleasure and ego all wrapped into one glorious wave of self-assured satisfaction.


I should reexamine my claim about wanting to be invisible in the weight room. It’s not an untrue representation of how I feel, but it’s incomplete. More accurately, I should say this: if the only way for me to be seen in the gym is in the typical way that Straight Cisgender Brodudes see women, then yes, I choose invisibility.

But if it’s possible for me to be seen as untouchable, unattainable—someone you shouldn’t even bother speaking to because you simply don’t stand a chance, because whatever you could possibly say to me will be a complete waste of my time. If I could be seen, not as an object to leer at, but as a subject with strength and agency, an independent human who doesn’t fucking need your help and probably knows more than you anyway—that’s the type of visibility I crave.


In a lot of ways, it’s hard to separate the physical, mental, and emotional components of lifting—mental strength enables me to increase my physical strength, which increases my emotional strength, which increases my mental strength, which helps me increase my physical strength…and so on. Likewise, I have trouble drawing the Venn diagram that shows how love, pain, and sex function in my life. It seems that pain and sex have a lot of overlap. Sex and love also clearly share a lot of common space. But what about pain and love? Do they overlap? If so, how much? Can those lines be redrawn?


A few weeks after my run-in with Mr. Yeah-But-I’m-A-Personal-Trainer, I was approached between sets by an old guy at the Y. He was in his fifties, wearing a worn-out T-shirt and sweatpants, white tennis shoes, and white gym socks pulled up over the cuff of his pants. He had a scraggly, chin-length hairstyle that seemed intentional and also suggested that he has never been married, or, that if he had been married, it ended a long time ago. Normally, I would not have had my guard up with a guy like him. Old guys at the Y just seem to get it. When they talk to me it’s usually to ask a legitimate question or engage in genuine weight room camaraderie. But I was still reeling off that last encounter, so I went into full-on bitch mode when he spoke.

“Pardon me, Miss?”


“Oh, um, I wanted to ask you if you would mind if I took a recording of your bench press?”

“Excuse me?” I jumped to the worst possible conclusions. Was he some kind of weightlifting pervert who gets off on seeing girls lift? Does he have some fucked up fantasy about being overpowered by a woman and wants to record me lifting so he can jack off to it at home? I’m sure my disgust and annoyance seeped through my face.

“Well you see, I’m doing a promotional YouTube series about the Y community here, and I was hoping to include you in it if you’re interested. I’m really impressed by your bench form. You know, I’ve been coming here for fifteen years and I’ve never seen anyone—guy or girl—set up their bench with such precision. It’s clear you really know your stuff.”

I reddened from embarrassment, but his offer was one my ego couldn’t refuse. When I watched the video a few weeks later, I didn’t see any of the anxiety I felt while being recorded. I didn’t see the fear in my chest as I brought the bar down for my third rep, wondering whether I’d be able to push it back up. I didn’t see the self-consciousness that permeated my body, making me instantly regret saying yes. When I saw myself on that video, all I saw was strength. I saw the years of practice that went into pushing my shoulders and arms into position. I saw the balanced focus of intentional breathing as I moved the bar to my chest, paused, and pushed it back upright. I saw confidence in every flexed muscle of my body.

When I saw myself on that video, I saw the woman I hope everyone sees who encounters me at the gym: a woman who has no need for your advice, but will gladly get on her knees and call you Daddy if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in her bed.

Renée Mitchell Matsuyama is a writer who also works as a student services administrator at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Originally from California, she has spent significant time in Washington, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. If it weren’t for Midwestern winters, Minneapolis would be her favorite U.S. city. Renée holds degrees in English and Higher Education Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she is currently pursuing an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She is a Flash Fiction Contributing Editor at Barren Magazine, and you can find her on social media @MatsuyamaRenee.

2020 Poetry

Natalie Louise Tombasco


Oh fern-green girly girl, you’ve chewed mother up
real good—her cartilage & sinew gorged on
her freckles, your own blood. What a predicament.

What is your alibi? You’ve engulfed something
beautiful, tortured, remorseless—something like
the Atlantic. Swallow air to hold down a spit & acid

drenched ear so it’s not coughed up as if to say,
“I heard that.” It’s a shame you’re being hollowed-out,
femurs & arteries gone. She sits in your gut, sucking

the last of the intestines through a paper straw.
Bigbad girl, you’ve tried to embarrass her
into change, but you needed animal tracks

leading to fuschia chrysalis, to love.

Natalie Louise Tombasco received an MFA in poetry at Butler University in Indianapolis, IN, where she was a reader for Booth: A Journal and will begin to pursue a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University in Fall 2019. Her poems have appeared in The Minnesota Review, Antioch Review, Southwest Review, Sonora Review, The Pinch, Meridian, Salt Hill, among others. She was a runner-up in The 2019 Pinch Literary Awards in Poetry. Tombasco is from Staten Island, NY.

2020 Poetry

Colin Bailes


My father teaches me hammer-ons
in the bedroom I slept in as a boy.

He plays Townes Van Zandt, sings
you weren’t your mama’s only boy,

but her favorite one it seems.
Hunched in a chair, hugging

the walnut dreadnaught,
I grip my grandfather’s Gibson—

the one he played at the Grand Ole Opry.
My fingers curled around the neck,

knuckles white, sweating
all over the strings,

I can’t get the timing right. I know
this guitar will one day be mine;

the others will go to my brothers—
but tonight, we’re alone.

Later, in the living room,
he puts Harvest on the turntable,

his feet up in the recliner,
starts humming along to “Old Man.”

I watch the golden glow
of the whiskey under lamplight

as he brings the glass to his lips.
I watch his hands—

sun-spotted already—
and they’re my grandfather’s hands.

And I can’t stop thinking
about my hands, how they look like his.

Colin Bailes lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he studies in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Missouri Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Sugar House Review, and Whiskey Island, among others. He is originally from Florida. 

2020 Poetry

Ruth Williams


In the woods, the girls and I
collect pine cones, run our fingers
over the pricking edge.
Anticipating the moment
the cone expands.

Here, little disaster.
Here, little cuts.

Our mothers told us
if a man smiles
too wide, don’t
focus on his mouth.
Teeth straight and white
so you see them
even when you blink.

When the lone boy
pins one of us down, we laugh
like the sound of bats
high in the rafters, knocking
tongues against teeth.

Knowing the moment
he goes dark,
a survival instinct.

Lashing out
like the old, rabid cat
left in the garage
for having been bitten
by a wild thing. We want to know
how to strangle ourselves
softly, slowly.

It’s not our fault. Even the cat
grew strange. Jumping
at shadows
her claws dulled
batting the walls,
unable to recognize
her natural enemy.

Ruth Williams is the author of a poetry collection, Flatlands (Black Lawrence Press, 2018), and two chapbooks Nursewifery (Jacar Press, 2019) and Conveyance (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). Currently, she is an Associate Professor of English at William Jewell College and an Editor for Bear Review.