Review: The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson (reviewed by Amanda Kelley)

BirdsThe Birds of Opulence

by Crystal Wilkinson

208 Pages

The University of Kentucky Press, 2016

ISBN: 0813166918



Mental illness, illegitimate children, friendship, memories, loss, and family ties have been explored in fiction before, but in Crystal Wilkinson’s long awaited new book, all of these subjects come together in a way that is realistic but not tired, familiar but not predictable, and moving but not nostalgic. The Birds of Opulence is poetic and resonant, conjuring both the beautiful and the tragic in the lives of four generations of characters amidst the bucolic backdrop of fictional Opulence, Kentucky.

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Exquisite Duet: John Van Wagner and Kona Morris

Exthe-duetquisite Duet (formerly Exquisite Quartet) is not so much a composition between two writers, but rather something created within the murky midlands of each author’s mind, yet set off by the same first sentence. Meg Tuite chooses two writers each month and gives them a first sentence to start with and a 250-word limit to finish an exquisitely mesmerizing story or poem. These duet-dueling writers will craft two completely different cosmos that have rotated, pitched, and blasted from the depths of their cerebral cortex to the twitching nerve endings of their digits onto dueling keyboards and separate screens until their sublime duet is prepared to see the light of an audience.

Late at Night Was the Best Time to Leave

by John Van Wagner


Seized by wretched nostalgia she looks upon the overturned cafe table pinning a wine-soaked cloth, just as she created it. A torn magazine face down, an exploded constellation of shards of majolica. Lazy wineglasses spin in mid-air.

On the plastered wall a clock hand overtakes the bottom of an hour, herding shadows in tight circles. So her hand-me-down Genesis.

Another god might have made these whole first, then struck them asunder, but in her is from the start the broken word.

Drama enough? From the ledge of her white palms she surrenders wilted blossoms; pink petals overcast with rot; sprinkles echoes of an eleventh-hour deceit called out with footsteps, carefully places the aftermath of a door clicked shut. In her presence light backs away.

“The sorrows of others are made of things that are done, but go on,” she declares. “And so begin with having gone.”

Trying to help their creator, Things spring willingly into being.

You need the December of gardens? The August of snowbanks? They are yours. We have given you evaporated floods and belated congratulations. All you ask we have done. So why is each of us born old?

I wasn’t listening, she admits to Things. She was thinking a kind of thought, longing for soil, for sky, water, air, color; all the grounds and tethers muddy with remorse.

When does a god repent?

Oh, say all her scattered disasters, but we were close…

Her radar arms belay the land.



by Kona Morris


Seized by wretched nostalgia, she sat on her kitchen floor, legs spread wide with bare ass cheeks against sticky linoleum, fingering an endless box of unidentifiable scraps, pulling hard to remember why she had kept it so long.  Faded train tickets, phone numbers, photos of faces she no longer knew, postcards and business cards and museum brochures, and, every once in awhile, an e. e. cummings quote that instantly shot her with a tiny burst of the person she used to be.

It became a spell, searching for that feeling.  She was hit with it seventeen times over the course of three and a half hours until the contents of the box had all been placed, piece by terrible piece, onto the landfill that was now her kitchen floor.  Cummings and Whitman, Baudelaire, Bukowski, their words like giant angry middle fingers erected upright in fury, shouting for her to go fuck herself for what she’s become.

So, she lifted the oversized t-shirt she was wearing above her head, and laid back, naked, on top of her pile.  She rubbed the seventeen feelings around her neck, then breasts, then tried to shove them inside of herself, but too much impenetrable bush had grown in the way.  How very much like Walt’s beard of bristles, she thought.


John Van Wagner germinated in May, sprouted in Poughkeepsie, was humiliated on the short grasses, harbored in the interest of eggs, deployed by small waters, ripened in the dry wold, and loosened by the rattraps of Santa Fe. Work appears in Connotation Press, Eunoia Review, Santa Fe Literary Review.

Kona Morris received her moral guidance from Kermit the Frog. She is from the foggy redwood hub of Humboldt County, California, and she has since lived everywhere from Boston to a remote village in northern Alaska. She was co-founder and editor of Fast Forward Press, as well as the founder and writer of Godless Comics. She has been featured as a writer, editor, and publisher at literary events across the country, and her stories have appeared in a variety of publications. Kona teaches letter regurgitation to college students in Denver.


Chesapeake Writers Conference, June 19-25


St. Mary’s River, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Registration is now open for the 2016 Chesapeake Writers Conference at St. Mary’s College, St. Mary’s City, MD!

Each summer, we host between 35 and 45 writers at all levels of experience for a week of lectures, craft talks, readings, and panel discussions, as well as daily workshops in the genre each participant has applied in–fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. These workshops, as well as the other events, are led by exemplary faculty, including National Book Award finalist, Patricia Henley, and PEN/Diamondstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay finalist, Angela Pelster.

The conference will run from June 19-25. It’s worth noting, though, a few unique offerings at the Chesapeake Writers’ Conference:
·         A multi-genre youth workshop for high school students.
·         Two hours of course credit for enrolled college students.
·         A publishing panel discussion, as well as individual meetings, with both an agent and an editor (both are yet to be announced, but these will be industry insiders from major New York firms)

Please see the website below for more details.

Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. As of now, we still have seats.

Review: Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? by Barrett Warner (reviewed by Alexa Poteet)

BarrettWhy Is It So Hard to Kill You?

by Barrett Warner

63 Pages

Somondoco Press, 2016

ISBN: 0985389893



Barrett Warner’s new collection Why Is It So Hard to Kill You?  is perhaps best explained through his poem “Poem with Only a Single Reference to a Shotgun,” which does not actually contain a reference to a shotgun at all: only the animal’s convulsions, his bleeding ears. When the reader tries to focus this collection in his cross-hairs, it will not hold still for the shot, fragmenting into pleasing pieces just beyond the viewfinder.

The poems in Warner’s collection all have a silent haunting to them—a feeling that more hovers just off the page, perhaps by a hangman’s noose. Poems such as “I Thought I’d Stop Having Sex Dreams of Kim After She Broke Her Neck” and the poem “Did I Tell You How Much I Liked the Maple Candy?” play with the dark edge between ecstasy and disaster. In “Kim” the narrator’s sexual fantasies for a woman persist after a tragic accident that nearly killed her, and in “Maple Candy” the tenderness of a mare giving birth in maple sugar season is contrasted with the death of her foal who “suffered kissing spine/making him hurt everywhere/ except in his quiet, lean gaze/ as he galloped towards/ a barbiturate finish.” Even the foal’s imagined ailment “kissing spine” seems to revel in the terrible edge between light and dark. For Warner, love kills.

Animals are a persistent motif that embolden the poet to toe the line between this world and the next in the collection. Their trials, deaths, or even refusal to die reveals much about his view of human nature. The poem from which the title of the collection is taken “Immortal One” ponders a line of deceased pets, and in particular, one angel fish—we concede, perhaps a bit heavy-handed—that refuses to perish. “Why is it so hard to kill you?” the narrator asks, thought it is clear he is not so much trying to kill as wondering why life allows some things to decay and others to endure. “Once I left you on the porch./ You lived for two months/ eating uncautious flies/that sipped your tank water./Come on little triangle, is your song here not complete?” There is a feeling that perhaps Warner’s narrator, too, is wondering why despite being left on the proverbial porch so long, he continues through this trying life.

Even the humans in Warner’s collection walk the line between two worlds: the natural and artificial, often to comedic effect. That which belongs and that which does not. Warner’s poem “Insomnia” provides one of the more memorable opening stanzas I have read this year: “Stephie used to leave notes to Charley/beside her prosthetic breasts: I’ve gone to bed, enjoy yourself.” A casual grief pervades this collection like a fog. How did Stephie lose her breasts? Even she seems to be so caught up with the business of living that she cannot mourn them. This grief appears even for the inhuman in “Maine is Not the Place to Grow Bougainvillea.” One lover chastises another, “That plant will die in a few/weeks, she says, and then we’ll all/ have to deal with your grieving.” The longing that follows death is a state of being for Warner’s narrator. As he puts so aptly in “The New Fantastic Empathy”, “I’m neither happy, nor sad,/ but the pain cuts me to pieces.” Us too, in this deft and sly meditation on the vicissitudes of being human.

Alexa Poteet

ORIGINS: Tara Laskowski

BystandersIn today’s ORIGINS at jmww, author Tara Laskowski discusses the origins for her short story collection Bystanders, which published May 2016, by Santa Fe Writers Project.

It’s harder to pinpoint the origin of a short story collection than it is a novel. Because thinking back, there were many origins—each story has one. Some of them I honestly cannot remember where the pin of light started to break through the black. They are mysteries to me, and they probably evolved through time like most writing does.

Others I know exactly where the initial idea came from: a terrifically bad relationship with a sociopath, a random anecdote my coworker told me about friends of hers from childhood, a key I found in a junk drawer, the spooky way people look through a baby video monitor, winter Sundays eating supper at my grandmother’s house.

The bigger question is when did they all gel together to be this collection. For many years, I was puzzled by the idea of putting together a short story collection. How did you figure out what to put in and what to leave out? Stories that are written over many years are distinct in their own way. You’re trying out different things—finding your reach, experimenting. The only thing my stories seemed to have in common was that they didn’t have anything in common at all.

And then, suddenly, they did.

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Review: Secrets of Men…in a Lifeboat by Todd R. Baker (reviewed by James Prenatt)

Lifeboat.jpgSecrets of Men in a Lifeboat
by Todd R. Baker
460 Pages
Aqueous Books, 2016
Softcover, $16.99
ISBN: 069255484X






A book is a book, a movie is a movie, or so our writing professors would tell us. In Secrets of Men… in a Lifeboat Todd R. Baker plays with the line between script and prose, both to his detriment and advantage. It’s tight, objective prose has enough characters thoughts and descriptive filters to make it an interesting and fun read, but the repetition of the characters’ names gets old after the first fifty pages.

And those pages fly by in no time. The book’s 450 pages read more like the standard 110 of a screenplay and the quick scene-to-scene format makes you want to finish it in one sitting. Baker has learned from his time in the film industry, but takes advantage of the room a novel gives one such as room for characters’ thoughts and perspectives and more time to show the protagonist, Luke Morrow’s delightful and compelling relationship with his son, Trevor. Only what Baker hasn’t learned from either medium is that we don’t need all the details. Some stuff isn’t interesting for the audience. I don’t know business lingo. I don’t want to and I don’t need to, but I got my fill of it. The second half of the book that chronicles Luke’s second chance at a Silicon Valley Steve Jobs life gets old after the thirtieth stock rate and four-course dinner you can’t pronounce.

This is a book about redemption. At first, we’re rooting for Luke. His wife hates him and the only explanation is that he gambled with his money. Stereotypically, Trevor’s stepdad is filthy rich and Luke tries time after time to prove that he’s not only a good dad, but capable of supporting his son financially. Problem is, he’s just lost his job and evil step-daddy wants to take Trevor and mom to Martha’s Vineyard. The stress is too much for Luke and he ends up having a nervous breakdown, ending with him blowing his brains out.

Instead of arriving in heaven or hell, he gets a shot at a second life, one where he makes insanely big bucks founding a company, which is basically just Skype with cameras in the household. We get it now, why his wife hates him, even though we’re not sure that the unfaithful jerk he is in his second life was him when Trevor was first born. His sociopathic trip to wealth is painful to get through, but if you’re a glutton for punishment, you’ll manage. Given its structure, moral premise, and California setting, I won’t be surprised when it makes it to the big screen with Baker himself an executive producer. A Hollywood agent with a pile of scripts on his desk could read this book just as quickly and there’s a universal appeal. It’s a hard book to put down, at least for the first part. It’s the opening line that really gets you: “On his fortieth birthday, the man, unshaven and sleepless, unlocks a gun. As comets die overhead, he raises the gun, bruises blooming where cuffs had once strapped him to a bed.” If only there were more lines just as beautiful.

Secrets’ most redeemable quality is that of Luke’s – his relationship with his son is endearing, sweet, and enough to make you consider the lovely parts of parenthood worth the trouble and pain that come along with raising a life. SPOILER ALERT: cop-out happy ending lacking in originality made up for in warm fuzzies. Okay, I like the fuzzies every now and then, but nonetheless, a novel need appeal to the masses as much as the screen.

James Prenatt

Review: Charles Simic’s American Noir (by G.H. Mosson)

SimicNew and Selected Poems: 1962-2012

by Charles Simic

384 Pages

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Hardcover $29.99

ISBN: 0547928289



America poet Charles Simic, a World War II immigrant as a child from war-torn Yugoslavia to the U.S., and the 2007 Poet Laureate of the United States, recently published a New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012 spanning fifty years.  It provides another occasion to revisit Simic’s oeuvre. Simic in his poetry transforms inner trauma and existential puzzles into vivid, surrealistic fantasies.  Often crafted with a plain diction, across a few stanzas, his short poems wax and wane between grim tales and dark laughs.  Some might find his take narrow.  His Selected does become repetitive after the first 100 or so pages.  Yet, Simic is a master craftsman.  He combines the fun of a horror genre novel with sharp existential insight.  His poems again and again take deeply imaginative flights.

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Final week! Submit to the 2016 Claudia Emerson Poetry Chapbook Award

DroughtWe’re extraordinarily honored to have Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon as our judge for The Claudia Emerson Poetry Chapbook Award for 2016, honoring the legacy and spirit of beloved poet Claudia Emerson. Submissions are now open!

 The winner will receive $500 plus five letterpress-cover copies of the chapbook, which will be hand-bound and printed in an edition of 100. Please read the submission guidelines and enter the contest (
The deadline for contest submissions is May 15, 2016.
 You can also order Drought, M.L. Brown’s winning chapbook from last year’s inaugural award, by visiting
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is the author of Open Interval, a 2009 National Book Award finalist, and Black Swan, winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, as well as Poems in Conversation and a Conversation, a chapbook in collaboration with Elizabeth Alexander. Her work has appeared in such journals as African American ReviewCallalooCrab Orchard ReviewGulf Coast, and Shenandoah, and in the anthologies Bum Rush the Page, Role Call, Common Wealth, Gathering Ground, and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. She is currently at work on a third collection, The Coal Tar Colors.

Review: Crash Course by Robin Black (reviewed by Amanda Kelley)

crash courseCrash Course: essays from where writing and life collide

by Robin Black

200 Pages

Engine Books, 2016

Softcover, $15.95



“How often do we talk about writers who need ‘permission’ when they are just starting out?” Robin Black asks in “Shut Up, Shut Down,” one of the essays in her new craft book-memoir hybrid, Crash Course, a book I turned to for that very purpose: permission. As someone in an MFA program and as someone who has written in some form or another for as long as she can remember, I still feel like I need permission to follow my calling. And I’m not alone. Books like this one speak to that need. Black goes on to say,

I don’t know why I was lucky enough, maybe stubborn enough, to triumph in that long-running argument with the echoing voices silencing me. I don’t know that there are tricks I can share—beyond determination and outrage at the idea of being shut up, being shut down…

There are a few tricks though, among the forty-odd short essays that make up the book. In this collection, Black, acclaimed author of the story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this and the novel Life Drawing, combines personal essays and craft essays to bring us some of the everyday moments that make up a writing life.

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ORIGINS: Thursday 1:17 pm by Michael Landweber

In today’s ORIGINS at jmww, author Michael Landweber discusses the origins for his novel Thursday 1:17 pm, which published May 2016, by Coffeetown Press.

Thursday 117Although this is an essay on the origins of my new novel, Thursday 1:17 pm, it might end up being more appropriately titled revisions. I suppose we could go with ressurection, although that’s a bit messianic for my taste. Really, this is about the two Origins of this particular book.

Honestly, I can’t pinpoint the moment that I had this idea. But all my work – novels, short stories, whatever – starts with the idea. Usually a very strange idea. When I have these ideas, they are followed by an intense conversation with myself about why this particular concept will probably lead to anguish and heartbreak.

Here’s roughly what that conversation for Thursday 1:17 pm sounded like:

Me: I’ve got a great idea! Read the rest of this entry »


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