Review: George Washington’s Secret Six: by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager (reviewed by Bill Hughes)

WashingtonGeorge Washington’s Secret Six:
The Spy Ring That Saved the Revolution

by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

272 pages

Sentinel (reprint edition), 2014



The premise of George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the Revolution is intriguing: George Washington was able to rally from his defeat by the British in New York City in 1776 by cultivating a top-secret group, the Culper Spy Ring. Through the use of an intelligence network, Washington was able to compensate for America’s lesser firepower and “save” the American Revolution.

Poppycock. The co-authors, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, in their poorly researched book, want their readers to believe that six spies hanging out in and around then British-occupied New York City between 1776 and 1783 somehow, miraculously, “saved the American Revolution.” Sorry, this yarn doesn’t even come close to adding up to that kind of resounding result. Plus, it’s a gross insult to the leadership of General George Washington, his staff, and to the brave, fighting men of the Continental Army to suggest such a silly scenario.

None of my criticism is meant to take away from the skill and courage of those six America spies, but their efforts were tenuous at best and very hard to connect to any real war-related successes. For example, let’s take a closer look at chapters, 11, 12, 13, and 14, and one of the major premises of the book. These four chapters deal with the treachery of the traitor, General Benedict Arnold, and his connection to his British counterpart, the repulsive Major John Andre.

Andre was then in charge of the counterspy network for the imperial Brits, headquartered in NYC. The authors describe him in glowing terms as that “dashing young major.” The simple truth was that Andre was a notorious “war criminal.” I’ll get to that controversial issue in just a moment.

First, Arnold, in June, 1780, decided to defect to the Brits. He had been passed over for promotions and had gotten married, in Philadelphia, to a flaming Tory, Peggy Shippen. Wounded at the battle of Saratoga, in October, 1777, he was a very bitter man with a large chip on his shoulder.

Arnold had Washington appoint him to command the critical fortress at West Point, located north of NYC, on the Hudson River. His British’s contact was Andre. The clever scheme centered on Arnold turning West Point over to the Brits, and hopefully, to quickly capture Washington and his high command. It almost worked. Control of West Point meant control of the Hudson River Valley to the Brits, that split the American forces.

The plot was foiled, by accident, when Andre was captured, on September 23, 1777, by three American militamen and was found to have plans of Arnold’s betrayal hidden in his stockings. The notion that the American spies in NYC had anything to do with this seminal matter is simply preposterous. The co-authors are way off the mark with their claim on this important issue, along with other allegations submitted in the book.

Andre, since he was captured out of uniform, was considered a spy, an offense punishable by death. After a trial, he was convicted and sentenced to be hanged. The turncoat Arnold got wind of the botched efforts and quickly escaped by barge down the Hudson to board the “HMS Vulture.”

To read a detailed, documented and authoritative accounts of one of the darkest act of treachery in our history, I recommend: Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, by William Sterne Randall; and Major Andre by Anthony Bailey.

Getting back to that miserable cad, Andre. The co-authors refer to him as a man with “gallant manners and a sense of honor.” What planet are these guys living on? Andre was previously second in command to an elitist scoundrel named Major Gen. Charles Grey.

On the evening of September 20th, 1777, Grey’s troops launched a surprise night time attack on the camp of General Anthony Wayne located at Paoli, near Philadelphia (present day Malvern). More than 2000 American soldiers were stationed there. The Brits gave “no quarters,” in their blood-stained and vicious attack, and “at least 53” Americans were slaughtered trying to surrender. No mercy was shown by Grey and/or Andre. The massacre later became a rally cry for the patriots. To learn more about this mass butchery, check out the “Battle of Paoli” by Thomas J. McGuire.

Here’s an ugly truth. The Brits treated the American rebels as traitors and held them in the lowest possible regard. To prove it, just look at what happened to the American POWs. More than 11,500 prisoners died in captivity aboard sixteen British prison ships then docked in New York harbor during the conflict. A “Martyrs’ Monument” was erected to their sacred memory. It stands in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, NY.

I should have known not to buy this book, when I noticed blurbs of unctuous praise on its cover coming from the likes of that God-awful Neocon, Donald Rumsfeld; Dubya’s Brain, Karl Rove; and even (triple gasp) – Donald Trump!

To sum up, George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the Resolution, suffers from a badly flawed premise and some very poor research. It lacks serious scholarship. There are no footnotes. The co-authors repeatedly make up quotes. This book is a mega disappointment. I’m giving it, out of a sense of mercy – one star.

Bill Hughes is photojournalist and author. His book, “Baltimore Iconoclast,” can be found at:

Virtual Book Tour: Sheila R. Lamb: The Art of the Cover


Today’s Virtual Book Tour stop is from Sheila R. Lamb, who visited us last year to talk about Once a Goddess, the first book in the Brigid trilogy. Sheila’s work previously appeared in JMWW

Andrew and Andria Love (Studio A and A) are a husband and wife art team who made all three covers for the Brigid series. The typically create in a variety of mediums, themes, and styles. A number of the images on their home page look like something out of a fairy tale.



I love my cover artists. I grew up with Andria – we’ve known each other since the fifth grade and took creative writing classes together in high school. For my Brigid series, I sent preliminary sketches. By preliminary, I mean rudimentary, which is the extent of my drawing skills. I can see the full image in my head, but god help me putting it on paper.



When I read and write, I envision the scenes as if watching a movie. I wanted Brigid to be front and center of the covers because, ultimately, the trilogy is her story. Patrick is part of it, though his role is sometimes mysterious. That’s why he’s a smaller, shadowy figure on the cover of Fiery Arrow (#2), and why Bres is far away on the cover of Once a Goddess (#1). Andria sketched a couple of drafts from my stick figures to make sure she was interpreting them correctly.

FA drawingPersonally, I like covers that give a hint of what the character looks like. More covers now are symbolic, which leaves impressions more open to interpretation. Symbols let the readers envision their characters. But, I like a profile of the character or setting. I’ve probably been most influenced by Morgan Llywelyn’s older covers of Druids, Pride of Lions, and Bard.

I came up with the book cover ideas and brought them to the artist, before I had a publisher. When I signed with Solstice, I asked about cover design, and they agreed to go ahead and use Studio A and A. I believe they were in transition in changing their policy about cover art. This was a generous gesture on their part; authors do not usually have their own cover art. Publishers generally design covers in-house, and maybe you get a choice of a few options. But because the artists and I had sketched out the trilogy beforehand, and the artwork was good and professionally done, my editor discussed it with the editorial team and they approved it.

Follow along with Sheila R. Lamb’s virtual book tour to learn more about Fiery Arrow and Church of the Oak, books #2 and #3 of the Brigid series!

Book 1Book 2Book 3

Sheila Lamb

Sheila Lamb

Sheila Lamb received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from George Mason University. Her short stories have earned Pushcart and storySouth Million Writers Award nominations. She is a writer-in-residence at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities and is a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). Sheila is the author of the Brigid of Ireland historical fantasy series, which tells the story of Brigid as goddess, druid, and saint.  Sheila has traveled throughout Ireland and participated in the Achill Archaeology Field School. She loves Irish history, family genealogy, and is easily distracted by primary source documents. She lives, teaches, and writes in the mountains of Virginia.

Review: How to Have a Day by Megan McShea (reviewed by CarlaJean Valluzzi)

How to HaveHow to Have a Day

by Megan McShea

200 pages

Ink Press Productions, 2015










It’s not as if marking the moment would mean something, but it would make it seem to mean something1.


This is a book.
This is a door.
This is a . . . day.


Opening this book is like finding a big house all lit up at the end of a long, dark road.  Approach.  Climb the porch steps, worn from those who’ve ventured here before, and notice the single moth circling the bare bulb.  Place an inquisitive hand on the brass knob and twist.  This is when you’ll realize time might be parted like waves2.

You’re not going to find anyone you know on the other side, but you might hear their echo.  And there are so many rooms, each one brimming with the kind of details we often refer to (mistakenly) as small.  Small things rarely get their due.  Consider the atom.  Each autonomous small contributes itself to the all, and each poem in Megan McShea’s collection, How to Have a Day (Ink Press Productions, 2015), does so with an unassuming fortitude—the result is a tiny tome that murmurs from the back pocket, vibrates on its own seductive frequency, you’ve just got to train your ear to hear it.  Urge yourself toward a calculated lingering3 so as not to miss one of the constant oiled references4, a chirp trigger5 or a still breaking {sic} out6

Soon, the walls have fallen away and now there is only one large room, which must be round because nothing is hidden in a corner—every totem is humbly on display: pigeon toes7 and thimbles8, a rewarding oyster9 and a broke (not broken) candelabra10.  A slight non-native tension blooms in the cracks between visions.

An acute awareness of the passing of time becomes apparent, in and out of varying contexts, without the sense of a struggle against it.  On the contrary, its untamability is embraced, exalted even.  The tables and devices that mete it out are public, irrefutable11 harbingers of the hapless gaps . . . the trick that jogs the memory12.

A travelogue of dailies is compiled: sweating, eating, bathing, driving, dancing; so suggestive within the ring of its miniature ambiguities13; so many blanks to recognize and name, to fill and carry away.

The past, the culprit culprit14, is a constant companion here, too.  It hangs in the heat of the afternoon, or just after a rainstorm, hoping to be cultivated into an unpollution, a chance redemption.  Every seed in the yard has told on us in olden times15, and we are feeling the effects of their words ring true now, perhaps for the first time . . .

Sometimes it takes a parade to remind us16.

Enjoy the moments, friends, pass they will—be living, be alive, because these are them: the thes we can’t help anticipating! Take note of the patterns on walls that were always there17! Get higher in rarefied air18!  Listen without speaking to each little leaf as it falls19!

If all else fails, use the juggle coin to buy your way out20.


 Poems Quoted:

  1. Sacre vache!
  2. How to have a day · 1
  3. How to have a day · 3
  4. History
  5. Trying to be informative
  6. A bit swollen in the pretend-area
  7. How to have a day · 1
  8. Headmeat
  9. History
  10. Busted
  11. Actuality prayer
  12. Sacre vache!
  13. Trying to be informative
  14. How to have a day · 2
  15. Sacre vache!
  16. How to have a day · 2
  17. Patterns
  18. In rooms
  19. Progress
  20. Plumb function


CarlaJean Valluzzi


Six poems by Chen Chen


Big Mug

Found last August in a barn prolific with gorgeous,
made by artist friend E. who likes to keep a copy of Being & Time
in the bathroom, made with her hands that can’t stop
making things, painted blue with night & yellow with stars,
a soft brown field haunted by a grey round goat—
big mug, I adore you. & because you’re a bit too big to handle,
drink from, instead of coffee or tea you’ve come to hold a rainbow
of Sharpies, a museum of movie stubs, buttons that declare
Comics Made Me Queer, fresh white index cards, favorite fake-Confucian
futures from fortune cookies, too many take-out receipts, photos
of my guy & I competing for freakiest face, index cards abounding
in bad ideas for poems, a piece of purple string whose secret
I can’t recall, & one small envelope, red, the hong bao from Mom & Dad
that held the Lunar New Year’s lucky money, that holds tradition
& memory, my parents watching over three nights a bootleg of CCTV’s
five-hour New Year’s Gala in Beijing, my parents’ loud happiness
because of the acrobat’s impossible dance, the comedy duo’s impressions,
the actress’s song, her giant teal dress. Did they watch it all this year?
How many more years will they get to? Do you know, big mug?
You, a mostly accidental, weirdly accurate record of time
& being. Already it’s summer again, & I think your lack of tea leaves
is telling me Go, make bolder, hold weirder, lose it all on streets & streets
of pink-gold bafflements, with lunar luck, for too large, so much, such loves.


I Dream on a Crowded Subway Train with My Eyes Open But My Body Swaying

I dream of how I was running late & had to sprint
at least five June-hot city blocks
in order to meet you. I dream of how we walked
(me a bit breathless & sweaty) into a little café together
& right away got so caught up in talking
I didn’t even think to order a drink
till much later you reminded me, Did you want to get
something to drink?

& I felt so grateful to you,
that you would cease being so interesting for a moment
& give me the chance to get up
because I was indeed very thirsty.

It was past closing time
when we left the café & wandered into the park—Yes,
I said, Let’s sit here
& we sat there, a bench, a place on this earth
for maybe five people at most
though everyone knows it’s really just
for two people at a time, that’s why benches were made
& when they’re not serving their purpose
they are rained upon & look more miserable
than a child who has suddenly dropped her ice cream
on the pavement. But how un-miserably
we kissed, how the lamplight
made everything the most
anti-despondent green. The trees, the grass,
the benches—our bench—all
greenly awake, as we kissed
& kissed. I’m dreaming,

yes, on the train heading home,
that our kiss, the last before we parted, has yet to end,
not entirely—that I’m carrying
the sweet ghost of that kiss on my lips, while on
your train, you carry it, too.
Let’s say it takes all night
for us to get home, the train having to make
every stop, & everyone forgetting to step off
the first,
even second times,
while we’re still kissing that kiss, that green,
& June


Talking to God About Heaven from the Bed of a Heathen

It’s a dark 4AM here, but up where you are, it’s probably always
a shiny noon. So no one there ever thinks thoughts like: I can’t,
I need to, why can’t I sleep, why does this overfull love

fill me with fear? See, the boy I love is asleep beside me,
cocooned in his quilt despite the many blankets of summer.
God, how does he sleep? Why doesn’t my love for him

make me believe in a super-us, give me a sense of giddy
invincibility? Why am I more terrified than ever of the terrible
inevitable? & does he ever ask these 4AM questions?

Or does he believe in souls, eternity, our immortality?
Do you, God? You should know that although I miraculously
agreed to attend Bible camp one summer (my parents pushed

not because they were religious, but because the camp
was free), I don’t & have never believed in you.
Yet here I am: sitting up in bed, thinking about death,

& needing to talk to someone who (reportedly) has the answers.
I know, though, that there are believers who don’t believe
out of fear simply. They actually love you. They reach out

& receive your touch. Like a friend, like a boyfriend, like the boy
beside me, overheating, reeking of sweat, & still (somehow)
asleep. I wish I could feel your warmth, as easily

as I feel his. But I don’t. I feel fear. I hear fear telling me I’m
a body, that’s all. & the boy I love is a body. & bodies die. No
other world, no return to this world in another form. Annihilation.

It isn’t that I didn’t think these were the facts before. It’s that now,
he’s here. I have to try harder. Believe the facts could be
at least a little wrong. Believe if not you, almighty

& only, with your kingdom in the clouds, then something
else. If not a whole slew of gods with an infinity of realms,
if not a climb up & down the karmic ladders of rebirth

till moksha, nirvana, if not any existing promise
of after, of more, then something. Please,
something. Some magic, real as this ripe life with him.


After Another Conversation with My Parents In Which I Refer to Him as My Roommate

Who in this story, parent or child, is the coward?
The parents who can’t listen without anger?
Or the child who can’t speak without hurt?
Whose myth is this that demands again & again
civility over reality, cheerfulness over change?
Oh but I know: the myth is mine, theirs, ours.

Each month that passes by like this is ours.
Every time I choose to call them up: coward!
I call myself for not bringing up what would change
everything. Every time they call me: anger
that they did not ask, did not ask again
what I would not answer, not wanting to hurt

them, though they are the ones who have hurt
me most, who have looked away & said, Not ours.
Who have said, You are ours, but don’t ever again
talk about
that. Who made me feel a coward
for not asking nice girl out, a traitor for my anger,
my “refusal” to be with girls, to change

for anyone, for the world they think won’t change
for me, though it is, it is. It doesn’t have to hurt
simply to be here. We don’t have to have this anger
anymore. What’s mine, what’s theirs, & ours
should be the same: a world without shouting coward,
traitor, then silence, silence. But my body again

refuses to cooperate. My hand, my mouth again
stay still, shut. Won’t pick up the phone, can’t change
the static channel of the face, the show called Coward
. & all the while, the boy I love is hurt.
He’s already welcomed me into his family, said ours,
not just yours or mine any longer
. Which sparks an anger

with myself, my stubborn hesitation. But maybe this anger
is good anger, a kind that leads back to kindness again.
Maybe this anger is courage. & I need it for the hours,
months it might take after I finally make the change
& my parents say, Go to hell or Give us time or You’ve hurt
. & then hanging up, retreating as cowards,

afraid of me, my anger, no, afraid of themselves, changing.
Damn it, it’s time to speak again. Not to hurt
but to say, our life can’t go on as that of a coward’s.


Didier et Zizou

for Zach

We loved Howl & the Tao when it was still
spelled with a T. We loved green tea but often had
Orangina instead. We loved Trakl & a darkly

declarative sentence. We loved different genders
but knew we were just two variations on the theme,
horny teenage boy. We loved Heidegger

& dwelling in your kitchen, drinking Orangina,
being there, for an hour, two, being moved
by each other’s stillnesses.

Sometimes your cat stopped by, ink black
& unimpressed. An ellipsis from next door always
stopped by. It said nothing & preferred to stand,

quietly vibrating, between our adolescent musings
& philosophical urges. Then it reminded us
we had French homework. The future perfect

vs. the plain future. We put off both.
In French one afternoon, when Madame asked for
everyday associations with the season of l’automne,

our classmates responded with leaves, scarves, pumpkins,
pumpkin-flavored drinks. Then I raised my hand
& Madame sighed, Oui, Didier? & I said, La mort, autumn

has to do with death. & you laughed, loud. In French
I was Didier & you were Zizou & Madame was
unimpressed, unamused. In French it was like

we’d never left your kitchen. Except it was raining,
always a panicky autumnal rain with Madame, which
made us crave tea & love e.e. & consider the smallness

of our hands. They were like ellipses, master
procrastinators, unable to finish things & not wanting to,
they loved fooling with the point, multiplying

the period…elongating the time…the words spent together


I Say Good Morning

to the ticklish of your neck,
the freckled of your shoulders,
the vast & very
of your chest, all
your underneath
streets, & electricity,
good morning,
packed subway
of workers commuting
from Grand Central
in their finest
red suits, oh
how they know
where to go, what
to carry, even at night,
zipping from
downtown heat
to the chilly outskirts
of toes, or this good,
good morning,
their dashing
to the cheek,
that bloom, as I
kiss you there,
& because these
workers know
just what to do,
because they seem
to sing Good morning
back, when I sing,
they must know
how I need
every blossoming
city block
of you, all your feral
how I wish you
your sweet
mammal breath
to be

Chen Chen is the author of the chapbooks Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015) and Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016). A Kundiman Fellow, his poems appear/are forthcoming in Poetry, Narrative, Drunken Boat, The Best American Poetry 2015, among others. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and is currently a PhD candidate in English & Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. Visit him at

Interview: The Negative Space of Jen Grow by Curtis Smith

Jen_Grow_ReadingJen Grow’s debut collection, My Life as a Mermaid, won the 2012 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. She is the Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, The GSU Review, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review, and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (City Lit Press, 2010). She’s received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with the artist Lee Stierhoff and a zoo of cats and dogs. You can contact her on Facebook, Twitter @Jen_Grow or through her website:

Curtis Smith: congratulations on winning the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition. It’s a wonderful book. Can you tell us a bit about how that all went down?

Jen Grow: Thanks, Curtis! I’m really pleased with how it all came together. For me, it’s been a lesson of perseverance. Before My Life as a Mermaid won the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition, it was turned down repeatedly. Various incarnations of the collection were the runners-up or finalists in four separate press competitions between 2003 and 2012. Over and over again, I received lovely notes from editors that basically said, “This is a great collection. I’m sure it will get published one day, just not by us.” There were some years when I felt like giving up. I stopped sending the manuscript out for a while. Then, in 2012, I picked it up again and reread it with fresh eyes. I tweaked a few stories, changed a few endings, came up with a new title and sent it to Dzanc at the last minute. I had no expectations, which is the best way to send work out into the world.

CS: Was it always writing or nothing else for you? Or were there other routes on your creative journey?

JG: My creative life has most always focused on writing. I’ve dabbled with visual arts, and for a while I was taking drumming lessons. I used to teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art and that environment sparked lot of ideas for me. Lately, I’ve been working with a photographer to pair his images with my essays. I’m also flirting with the idea of taking painting lessons. My husband is a plein air painter and I’m envious of his process, which seems very relaxing. I need some of that! I’ve read articles about how helpful it is to have at least one other artistic outlet because it opens up avenues in the brain and sparks new ways of seeing and thinking. That’s probably true. But I’m a slow writer. So ultimately, I feel like other pursuits take time away from writing.

CS: What were the books that made a difference in your life?

JG: If “you are what you eat,” then I think it’s also true that you are what you read. All the words and books I’ve ever read have shaped me in some way. Even if I don’t like a book, it makes an imprint, tells me something. I’m not a fast reader, so I really let a story envelop me and become part of my life for a while. That said, my earliest influence was Dr. Seuss. No one really talks about childhood stories, but Dr. Seuss got me thinking about the racism, justice, environmentalism, and the size of the cosmos at a very early age. I especially remember the story of the Star Bellied Sneeches and how I felt after reading it when I realized the absurdity of how we judge each other. Those themes have stayed with me.

I’m also indebted to Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? because I experienced something close to an epiphany when I read it. It changed the way I thought about stories, changed what I knew to be possible. Around the same time, when I was buying a gift for my father, a book of stories by Anton Chekhov fell off the shelf into my hands. I knew squat about Chekhov, but Dad and I became big Chekhov fans after that. Dakota, a collection of personal essays by Kathleen Norris holds a special place in my heart. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich was an early favorite. The first time I read Anna Karenina, my head just about blew off. (However, rereading it now has been a disappointment. Maybe it’s because I’m reading a different translation that I’m not wild about? Or maybe I just don’t relate to Anna in the same way I used to.) Most recently I’ve been wowed by Dylan Landis’ Rainey Royal, especially the chapter “Trust,” which is a marvel; also Susi Wyss’ The Civilized World; Kim Church’s Byrd, Diane Lefer’s California Transit and Michael Downs’s The Greatest Show– his story “Elephant” made me cry! Really, I want to mention a whole slew of writers I admire who are still shaping me and deserving of a wider audience.

CS: Can you share your process with us? Are you a regular, daily writer? Do you plan your pieces out or do you start writing and see where the pen takes you?

JG: I try to be a daily writer. I go through periods of being a daily writer. But something inevitably knocks me off course. So, I write as often as I can, even if it’s just ten minutes before I go to bed, just to change one sentence. You can write a book ten minutes at time, I’ve learned. But I prefer to write in binges. I like to leave town and write for eight to ten hours a day for a few days. I’d be a binge writer all the time if I could sustain it, but then it wouldn’t be a binge, would it? Just obsessiveness. And who would earn a living, walk the dog and make dinner? It takes a lot to sustain a writing life.

I compare my writing process to sculpting. When I was in my twenties, I worked as a figure model for art classes and learned a lot about the creative process. It was a sort of grad school for me. I related to the sculpture students who built armatures and then spent hours adding and subtracting clay, sometimes to the same spot. They’d shave off a sliver, re-add it, smooth it over, and then shave it off again. That’s how I write.  I start with a quick, bare bones draft so I know the basic shape of my story and what the ending is. Then I build up. Revision is my favorite part, so I smooth over each line, shave a word, put it back. The important thing is to know my ending and where I’m headed, otherwise I feel lost. I’ve tried to write without an ending in sight, but those stories haven’t worked out well.  So my process is a hybrid of planning and intuition. As I write, my mind makes connections and patterns that would be impossible for me to know or outline beforehand. The discovery process is what’s so fun.

CS: I greatly admired the book’s tone and mood. You really walk us along an emotional tightrope. In stories like “I Get There Late” you have your characters holding their cards close as you lead us into lives that are sheltered and private. There’s a lot of quiet tension built up as we read further. Can you talk about this? Does it happen naturally? Do you consciously hold back, allowing the pressure to build?

JG: I’m really interested in negative space in literature, how it shows up as quiet tension or loss. Going back to my years as a figure model, when I was posing I learned about positive space and negative space, terms that visual artists use to describe the compositional relationship between form and background. For visual artists, painting or sculpting the space around a subject is essential to the whole. For writers, ‘form’ and ‘background’ are created with words, or at times, the absence of words. There are lots of ways you can create negative space in fiction: through silence between characters; the omission of scenes that are essential to the story; the looming absence of other characters; the unknowable; and so on. In “I Get There Late,” I was playing with a lot of unspoken history between the characters. I wanted there to be a presence of uncertainty and tension. And I wanted the change at the end of the story to be very slight. I’m really interested in incremental shifts, the small moments in life that are often overlooked. For me, being able to pay attention small moments and negative space in life is spiritual.

CS: The title story, “My Life as a Mermaid,” is marvelous. There’s guilt and regret and anxiety—and it’s handled with such tenderness and restraint. Do you see guilt and anxiety as components of the modern condition? In what ways do they take their toll on us?

JG: Maybe I’m projecting, but I think there’s definitely a level of anxiety and guilt under the surface of our modern lives. How could there not be? On some level, we must know that our consumer culture, our love of pain-free convenience, our addiction to distraction is affecting more than just ourselves. I just read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, which I think should be required reading for everyone on the planet. We are at a very unique time in history. I was also just reading a fascinating interview in The Sun with Stephen Jenkinson who wrote, among other things, Die Wise (on my list of things to read). He talks about the Native American teaching of the seven-generations, which is, as he explains it, keeping in mind the consequences that our decisions will have seven generations from now. It seems obvious to me that our decisions are having a big impact on our fellow human beings and all living creatures even now. That’s a heavy load to carry, so of course it takes its toll on us: depression, disease, lack of presence or peace of mind. I heard about a nomadic fishing tribe in Indonesia that doesn’t have a word for ‘want.’ That’s hard for me to wrap my head around because we, in the U.S., live in a culture of wanting. I don’t know how not to want, because even to want peace of mind is a sort of striving after something. Jenkinson also talks about the necessity of recognizing what we owe in terms of giving back. I think he’s on to something, there.

CS:  I admire stories that play with form—with time and pacing and expectations—and I enjoyed what you did with “OK, Goodbye.” How do you handle pieces such as this that play with linear notions of time? How did this particular story come together?

JG: When I was in grad school, I had a story due to send to my professor, and of course, I waited until the last minute to write it. I knew I wanted to write something about these elements: a woman being towed in the dark by her father’s truck and only seeing the blinking red of his flashers; a bird that had made a nest in the grocery store; a woman losing her keys in the front yard and not being able to find them; and a girl with pink hair. But I didn’t have any idea how I would fit it together. So I wrote notes: there will be a scene about this, and another scene about that, and, oh yeah, don’t forget this other scene…. I assumed my professor would read these pieces as notes. But he read it as a story and was really taken with the structure. He’s the one that encouraged me to keep playing with it so the plot circled and repeated several times. It was a lot of fun to write, but the hardest part was to keep the time markers from confusing the flow of the story. I had to take out a lot of references to ‘two weeks earlier’ or ‘one month later’ or ‘the next day’. The time markers made sense in my head but confused readers.

CS: So what’s next as far as your writing goes?

JG: I just got back from vacation where I spent a lot of time writing. (That’s what vacation is for me, now: the opportunity to do writing work instead of work work.) I’m finishing a memoir; I’ve got a draft of a novel/novellas/linked stories that I’m trying to dust off and revise that may or may not have to do with West Virginia. I have a ton of short stories that are vying for my attention. Also, I’ve been working on a long personal essay about my father that I’m pairing with haunting, beautiful photographs that a friend took of my father’s house as we were emptying it. I’d really like to turn that into an exhibit one of these days soon. Or who knows? With all my spare time (ha!) maybe it will become a book.

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.


Review: Once I Was Cool by Megan Stielstra (reviewed by Amanda Kelley)

Once I Was


Once I Was Cool

by Megan Stielstra

200 pages

Curbside Splendor, 2014


ISBN-13: 978-1940430027



Stielstra’s collection of personal essays, Once I Was Cool, is composed of what feels like effortless prose. She employs a conversational tone making each essay accessible, plus, given the short length of each piece, Stielstra proves she knows which words to use—and which to leave out.

Personal writing has the potential to veer toward confession or even spectacle, where writers describe various traumas from their lives that keep our eyes on the page the way driving by an accident makes us crane our necks to take it all in. Stielstra, though, is able to write just as well about positive feelings and experiences: “What did you do when you realized you were lucky?” she asks in “Totally Not Ethical.” In “How to Say the Right Thing When There’s No Right Thing to Say” Stielstra looks at how to help a friend going through something hard and comes up with this:

It feels nice to be so deliciously empty, so open for new things, like spring and laughter and the future and new memories and newly remembered experiences and all the things you’ve been lucky enough to do, and the knowledge that you still have, at the very least, this single, perfect day to live.

This sentiment is continued in “Juggle What?” as Stielstra relates to Tina Fey’s opinion on the question so often asked of mothers: “How do you juggle it all?”

I think about how lucky I am. It’s a big feeling—a thousand times bigger than my novel ever could be. It’s so big that I almost stop breathing.

My whole life there’s been two things I’ve known for sure: I want to be a writer, and I want to be a mom. And now? People ask how I juggle it all, and what I want to say is, “Are you kidding? My life isn’t a juggle.”

It’s a fucking gift.

“Channel B” appeared in The Best American Essays 2013. The essay is ostensibly about postpartum depression, but it is also more. It’s about feeling alone when you never have time alone. It’s about feeling overwhelmed. It’s about giving so much of yourself to a little living being that it feels like there’s nothing left. It’s also very short and very true. “We all have things about ourselves that we know to be true, and suddenly I couldn’t remember any of them,” she writes about that lonely, demanding time after the birth of her son. The essay goes on to offer hope to any who might be going through the same thing and the language comes around to form a perfect circle.

Several of the essays in this collection acknowledge motherhood in some way. The essay “Felt Like Something” tells the story of Stielstra’s life being saved when a tumor was found via an ultrasound. Becoming pregnant literally saved her life because it led to finding the tumor, which leads to a good metaphor about how children affect us.

[W]hat I realized is this: our children save us. They illuminate what’s been there all along. They make us better than we ever thought we could be… without him I might not be sitting here today, and for that, I will believe. Call it God, if you like. Call it The Divine. Call it Not Atheist.

I call it a start.

While Stielstra writes about life-changing events like having children or going from being single to finding “the one” (illustrated briefly in “82 Degrees”), the collection is filled out with essays dealing with a variety of other subjects. “The Domino Effect” tells a story—a love story—but it also lets us think about art’s place and purpose in our lives as Stielstra shares her thoughts on paying it forward art-wise. “The Right Kind of Water” is an entertaining exercise in trying to get the details for a story just right as Stielstra spends hours in her bathtub to see what water does to the body after so long. “Under Your Feet They Go On Growing” and “It Seems Our Time Has Run Out, Dr. Jones” look at the author’s love of Kafka and Indiana Jones, respectively. Other essays give brief glimpses into Stielstra’s past which brazenly spare no details, from a glass testicle to her third grade teacher crying in the girl’s bathroom. Some of these essays span only a few pages, but most hold their own in spite of their small size, and overall, Once I Was Cool holds its own among others in the genre.


Amanda Kelley

Review: Crixia by Megan Hudgins (reviewed by Sean L. Corbin)

cover-w-smaller-fontCrixa, poems

By Megan Hudgins

(winner of the 2014 Two of Cups Press chapbook contest)

28 Pages

Two of Cups Press, 2015




In Crixa (Two of Cups Press), Megan Hudgins twists sensuality, artificiality, lost innocence, the creation of life, and relationships into a collection of fresh yet familiar statements on femininity and the various sinews that connect different moments and thoughts into a single meaningful web – or, better yet, a warren – called life.

Hudgins displays a strong eye for different poetic shapes and forms, and how theme and content can affect (and be affected) by those more aesthetic choices. Poems hinging on allusions to Watership Down (where the collection’s title originates) stand side-by-side with descriptions of Eduardo Kac’s famous bioluminescent rabbit Alba, explorations of adolescent sexual awakenings, and emotional explications of Wolfgang Tillmans’s Freischwimmer print series. So too do poems built from couplets mix with tercets, do prose poems juxtapose with thin-lined pieces, do brief imagistic stanzas coincide with poems written in screenplay formats.

Notice the transition from “Rabbit Fetus Reabsorption (1)” to “Freischwimmer 30: When the Love Yet to Leave Almost Left”: the former is, or at least is very nearly, a prose poem in two movements of very different lengths (one a single stanza, the other three), while the latter is a single stanza consisting of short, distinctly striking lines. The subject matter and language vary as well; “Rabbit Fetus Reabsorption (1)” features straightforward language and imagery, while the Freischwimmer piece – perhaps due to the shortened lines – feels a bit more ethereal. “A rabbit doe lops through the pasture,” Hudgins writes in the former poem, “nosing around the parched chickweed and beardgrass, noting the pull inside her as the pull of hunger, the suction of need, of gut on gut” (14); in the latter poem, the speaker notes that the Tillmans print is reminiscent of “when we exhaled a day / of descending and let / the green water clothe us / feet to crown” (15).

The chapbook is, I would argue, defined by these variations, these oscillations from one style to another, then to a third, then perhaps back to the second before exploring a brand new voice. Take this three-poem sequence from early in the collection: “Feeling What It’s Like to Fall Down” examines a young girl’s sexual awakening; “Above Ground” concerns itself with the speaker’s youthful understanding of death; “Synth in the Nineties” shows a relationship between two adolescent sisters through the medium of Super Mario Brothers. Here are three poems that all address similar themes, but each with very different points of view and voices – one precious and maudlin, one more dark than the others, one a bit more humorous (or at least lighter). These poems, and the collection as a whole, capture the different flavors of life experiences so successfully because Hudgins has allowed her poems – and their sequencing – to be flexible.

Crixa is a short chapbook with vast ambitions; that such different styles and themes for the most part work so well together is a testament to Hudgins’s strengths as a poet: her versatility, confidence, and remarkable patience, without which the competing thematic concerns of the collection would be unable to fully blend into a cohesive whole.

Sean L Corbin

Exquisite Duet: Larissa Shmailo and Anne Elezabeth Pluto

the-duetExquisite 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.


By Larissa Shmailo

I abandoned myself to invisible hands,
the known vice and strong vise of my nerves and my glands.
I half-screwed and cat-moaned and imagined your stare
in the stranger, his knife slowly teasing my hair.1
I abandoned myself to invisible hands,
to old limerance, feminine amorous trance, 2
and I censured myself: “You’re hysterical.” Him,
and the rape became me, now a phantom sex  limb.
I abandoned myself to invisible hands
and faced memory, resentment, and fear, and command. 3
Why were you just like him? Why so many to fear? 4,5
This old lead lives in me, this tar asphalt of tears. 6

1A bandit took my breathing;
A date rape! howled the frat;
A rufi took the edge off;
The rapist called me fat
2An obsessive romantic infatuation, usually unrequited and/or inappropriate and painful.
3Through the ability to understand how little you cared, I grew strong. I forgave and forgot you, like used toilet paper, flushed.
4I knew, knew what you were when I chose you. The rapist not so much, but you, my voluntary rape. Because I believed you when you said this is what I deserved. Because I helped you break my spirit and soil my dreams.
6I am now 100 percent responsible for my life and no pain can take that away from me.


Invisible Hands

By Anne Elezabeth Pluto

I let you touch me with invisible hands
write outrageous demands fist enjambs
into shifting sands and turning into

an electric fan – I let you touch me with invisible hands –
a married man – rattling love in your domestic plans –
dancing straight past your wedding banns – I let you touch me

without making plans – marking distant lands in the half light
of a tipsy nightstand – drunk on the love command I
let you touch me with invisible hands working

their way into my tight waistband – the last in a long
and twisty line of courtesans – you weighed my heart in kilograms
composed epigrams and suggested I get fitted for a diaphragm –

that last time I let you touch me with invisible hands
and sullen heart – with strutting cock and ticking clock –
I left you
gathering torn demands, slipping useless from your invisible hands.


Larissa Shmailo is editor of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry (Big Bridge Press) and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. She translated Victory over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s celebrated reconstruction of the first Futurist opera; the libretto is now available from Červená Barva Press. Larissa’s work appears in numerous anthologies, including Measure for Measure (Everyman Library/Penguin Random House)  Words for the Wedding (Perigee/Penguin Putnam), and Contemporary Russian Poetry (Dalkey Archive Press). Larissa’s poetry collections are #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books), In Paran (BlazeVOX [books] and the chapbooks A Cure for Suicide (Červená Barva Press) and Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks). Her poetry CDs are The No-Net World and Exorcism (Spotify, iTunes, Amazon). Her novel, Patient Women, is now available from BlazeVOX books.

Anne Elezabeth Pluto is Professor of Literature and Theatre at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, where she is the artistic director of the Oxford Street Players, the university’s Shakespeare troupe. She is an alumna of Shakespeare & Company.  She was a member of the Boston small press scene in the late 1980s. Her chapbook, The Frog Princess, was published by White Pine Press. Her e-book, Lubbock Electric, was published by Argotist ebooks in 2012. Her latest work appears in, The Buffalo Evening News, Unlikely Stories: Episode IV, Mat Hat Lit, Pirene’s Fountain, and The Enchanting Verses Literary Review.  She has been a member of Worcester Shakespeare Company since 2011.

Review: Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela (reviewed by Ashley Begley)

BeliefBelief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

By Lori Jakiela

290 pages

Atticus Books, 2015


ISBN-13: 978-0991546923




We all need to believe in something. So says Lori Jakiela in Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, a memoir chronicling her search for her birth mother, for someone “that looked and moved and laughed and loved and was sad like me” (99). For some people, this belief is firmly set in a god. For others, their only belief is in the cruelty of the world. For both, this belief is their life-line; it is how they survive. Jakiela undertakes this memoir to write, process, and create her own memories and beliefs, “to sketch in the details of what was lost to me” (291). However, it soon becomes clear that Jakiela also bears witness to the stories of others—of her father who never spoke about his time in WWII, of her birth mother who says that she thinks of her often but that she wishes she had aborted her, as well as to each of her readers, to us. We all want our own stories because “everybody needs a compass in this world” (31). And Belief is Jakiela’s compass.

Jakiela is a master at weaving past and present together; at creating a seamless picture between who she was, who she has become, and who she does not remember—the self that she cannot grasp. Her memoir is like her mother’s recipe, the mother who raised her: “as proof of an exchange, a transaction between generations” (283). As Jakiela enters into this virtual, almost otherworldly, correspondence with her birth mother and sister, username Blonde4Eva, we see her struggle with the collision of these new strangers with her familiar husband and kids: on her way to meet her birth brother and sister, her husband holds her close—“‘This,’ and he moves his finger through the air, connecting dots, his face to my face and back to his, “is what matters. This is your family, right here, between us, what we make.’ Then he says, ‘You’ll understand better when I fuck you tonight.’ I love him very much” (192). It is passages like this one, imbued with raw feelings of love and doubt, that make Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe an unforgettable story from the first page to the last.

Although sometimes the tone of the memoir can become heady, as Jakiela is mourning the loss of loved ones as well as of the self that she thought she was and of the self that she always wanted to be. To help the reader, she breaks up the narrative of her own life with stories that have been passed down to her or imagined from orphanage documents. And it is in these stories that Jakiela really shines—you can feel her longing to know more, to be physically connected to the people that she loves, even if it is painful: “I say now because sometimes a clock ticking is just sound and writing in the present lets my parents be alive, which is what I want them to be” (260). Through her writing, she remembers her people and somehow makes the ordinary into something more, so that her father, in his filthy work clothes feeding the sparrows under the maple tree, who “stood back and waited for the birds…to come down like a curtain around him” (287) becomes something extraordinary.

Jakiela gives us a piece of her story, a piece of herself, and she believes: “‘People believe what they need to believe,’ my mother told me…about how people told themselves stories so they could keep going even though they knew the truth about things” (184). And it is this belief, belief in breathing and belief in tomorrows despite knowing the truth about suffering and death, that obliges her to write because writing says, “‘I was here.’ It says, ‘Maybe this life matters a little'” (282). And when we have nothing left, this is what we hold onto. This is what we believe.

Ashley Begley




Review: Count the Waves by Sandra Beasley (reviewed by Rachel Carstens)



Count the Waves

By Sandra Beasley

96 pages

W.W. Norton, 2015

$26.95 Hardcover

ISBN-13: 978-0-393-24320-8



Enter Count the Waves: engaging, sharp, and playful. Beasley’s third collection is composed of poems that merge continents and centuries, folk tales, myths and historic narratives from which sometimes anachronistic speakers explore intimacy and longing, probing each situation or place until its dark underbelly emerges. These are smart, probing poems, necessitating, at times, the reader act as researcher, with the majority of the collection inspired by and titled with odd phrases coded in the Traveler’s Vade Mecum, a book for 19th century travelers that offers numbered phrases so that correspondents can send a quick, succinct messages. Beyond the many titles as allusions, the thematic and tonal threads are more limited; each new speaker—and the range of narrators and formal mechanisms at work are vast—differs in tone and form. Some read as stark and sincere; others are witty, full of puns and logic-play.

At their best, Beasley’s poems engage the reader in honest, funny, and startling explorations that contend that intimacy and vulnerability are, at times, unsexy, violent, willing. In the book’s first poem, “Inner Flamingo,” the physical landscapes—lovers’ bodies on a mattress “huddled at the bed’s edge” or “onioned in the skin of another”—testify as an account: unrefined, unrepentant. “The Emperor’s Valentine,” the sixth poem and first sestina, dampens the book’s initial traction: the emotional potency is obscured by competing foci, perhaps due to its form, perhaps due to too many actors—an “I”, a “you”, monkeys, turtles, and an emperor. The sestina returns with greater success in poems like “King”, “The Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica Regrets Everything”, “Let Me Count the Waves”, and especially in “The Sword Swallower’s Valentine”.

Powerful monologues—almost anti valentines—these later sestinas are tragic and ominous. While images are recycled or reappear across poems: husks, ships, lovers asleep, these sestinas explore the multiplicity of an image and word. What might have otherwise been restrictive and clunky is focused, exploratory, with the emotional crescendoes that mark one of the great joys and concerns of poetry.

I trained against touch once upon a time,
not knowing a rigid pharynx would match
a rigid heart. I’m ready to react,
to bleed. As any alchemist can see,
to fill a throat with raw steel is no match
for love. Don’t clap for these inhuman acts.
Cut me in two. Time, time, the oldest saw.

(the last seven lines of “The Sword Swallower’s Valentine”)

In “Valentine for the Grave Digger,” Beasley probes paradoxical intersections of experience and emotion through the use of obscure nomenclature and colloquial language that is rife with humor and gravity:

Don’t rhapsodize the sod’s sigh, the liftoff,
the two-step of digging and herding dirt.
Ask her if she’s heard of the monster truck;
when in doubt, chicks dig a sweet monster truck.


Pervasive throughout the collection is the effort to expose the insecurities of a speaker for whom to love is difficult, worrisome, demanding vulnerability and great sacrifice. Despite the warning in “Let Me Count the Waves” against looking for poetry in poems, it cannot be helped. The speaker in “The Circus” attests to the stakes of this collection: “to see every nature / beneath decoration”. Whether exploring love or place or death, these are poems concerned with poetry in its every facet.

Rachel Carstens





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