Monday, January 30, 2017

Pain as Fuel for Our Journey

by Bacopa Literary Review Editor in Chief Mary Bast

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey -- Kenji Miwazawa

In 2005 Joan Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking, about the "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself." Robert Pinsky described Didion's memoir as "an exact, candid and penetrating account of personal terror and bereavement . . . thrilling and engaging . . . because it ventures to tell the truth." More recently, Diane Rehm (On My Own) has described her husband's lingering death from Parkinson's and "her struggle to reconstruct her life without him." Rehm's perspectives on old age, according to a Kirkus review, "are brave and uplifting."

Didion's memoir is 227 pages, Rehm's 162 pages long. Imagine, then, a creative essay that is engaging because it tells the truth, because it is brave and uplifting in its perspective, and because it embraces pain and burns it as fuel for the journey. Further, know that this lovely memoir brings us to our knees in only 832 words. This is Bacopa 2016's Runner-Up prize winner and Pushcart nominee, "A Clothesline Meditation," by Debra Burks Hori.

When presenting Hori's essay at a December 2016 Writers Alliance of Gainesville reading, Managing Editor Mary Bridgman said, "'A Clothesline Meditation' resonated with me because it illustrates how the routine tasks of daily life can trigger deep, sometimes paralyzing feelings of grief. Paradoxically, in returning to those same repetitive tasks, one can find comfort, resolution and peace."

Excerpts from A Clothesline Meditation*
. . . My right hand, my left hand, in silent choreography. Cool, moist fabric, wooden clothespin, and line. It is a simple action, and I don't think about it. I don't think about my life; I don't think about anything else I have to do, not on this glorious spring day. Instead, I remember carefree afternoons standing next to Mommy as she took down the laundry. I remember the feel of sun-warmed cloth as she tossed it into the canvas laundry basket, the kind that hung on a metal frame standing like a big X when it was open and waiting to catch all the clean clothes. I remember the scent wafting up from the fabric. I remember thinking, as I tilted my head up, watching my mother, When I grow up, I'll be like Mommy, and I'll reach the clothesline.
     As I pin up the next sheet, I notice bright, lime-colored leaves budding on the branches of the pecan tree set against a piercing blue sky. The sheets make soft u-shaped cradles as they billow and sway, and I wonder, Will they smell like new leaves when I bring them in, when I float them up the parachutes as I put them on my bed?
       In the afternoon, I look out at the clothesline full of light blue and dusky purple sails. Thorns on a nearby rosebush snag one of the sheets and tug at it like a toddler who wants something. I go out to the clothesline and free the cloth from the thorns. Captured inside its blue curve are five fallen rose petals: tender swirls of yellow, orange, and ruddy red.
      I imagine saying to Robin when he comes home from work, "I found a gift on the clothesline today. Our rosebush made art in our linen!" He would smile, his tiny laugh lines wrinkling around his hazel eyes, and we would connect in a moment of seeing this small, beautiful delight nestled in our ordinary life.
      The thing is, Robin isn't coming home. I reach to release the dry sheets from the line, and my arms feel heavy, my body thick. A familiar saltiness gathers at the back of my throat. The clothespin slips from my hand and I watch it spiral down. I stop seeing the grass. I stop seeing the back yard. I stop. Full stop. My vision stops, shifts to another place. My body folds and I am down on my knees . . . .
*(from pages 134-135 of Bacopa LIterary Review 2016)

When her husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Debra Burks Hori wrote to comfort herself; she continues her writing to share our universal experience of grief: "Grief is part of our everyday lives, not something that is 'out there' or foreign, something for us to fear or avoid. If we allow grief to teach us, if we invite it in when it arrives, it has the power to transform us in ways that leave us richer, more compassionate, and stronger than before."

Hori's work has been published in This I Believe, Crack the Spine, The Penmen Review, Silver Birch Press, and The Los Angeles Times Health Section. An Educational Therapist in private practice, Hori holds a master's degree in special education from California State University and a bachelor's degree in psychology from Occidental College. She is a parent and is owned by two cats.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Strong Sense of Place and Family

by Bacopa Literary Review Creative Nonfiction Editor Susie Baxter

Jessica Conoley's "I Am Descended from Giants" was the first submission accepted in the Creative Nonfiction category for publication in Bacopa Literary Review 2016. Editor Rick Sapp said he loved its tone and brevity; Editor in Chief Mary Bast liked "how the author shaped the piece to give it the appeal of a fairy tale;" and I still marvel at its strong sense of place and family.

"I am Descended from Giants" was awarded first prize in Creative Nonfiction. Listen to the rhythm of the words as the author sets the scene:
. . . It's southeast Mis-sur-ah flat--the flat of white dotted cotton fields and mosquito-infested rice fields. The kind of flat that offers no shelter from the Mississippi River when the rain comes, and her banks rise, and families wait to see just how high the muddy sludge will climb up the baseboards in their living room . . . .
One quickly understands why the author dubbed her characters "giants."
. . . Because it is flat, the giants made good time as they roamed the country roads looking for work. The giants had been born to work, and to help, and to pull a smile from you when you felt there was nothing to smile about. The giants were born to live lives of adventure that made even their forty-acre shadows seem insignificant. The giants' magic was in their stories.
     Three of the giants were brothers and it was the tail ends of their lives that crossed over mine . . . . they taught me to never speak ill of family and . . . . showed generosity in unexpected places, leaving their oversized coats on the shoulder of foot-weary travelers ill-equipped for the elements.
     My child-eyes only saw glints of their magic . . . they painted stories of alternate times and realities. I think they could no longer see how very special each story was. They had grown accustomed to the sparkle of magic over their shoulders and, like a long-inked tattoo, they could no longer see it when they looked in the mirror. None of them ever seemed to realize how truly remarkable they were . . .
As time marches on, the author takes us back to place, to family, and to one's role within that family.
 . . . Sitting together, we looked over the flat, flat land and I waited. No longer a child, I now knew what to look for. I had learned patience, and I waited for the magic to come in its own time.
     It started in the winds that blew through the flat, flat land. Winds that carried the sounds of footsteps on gravel roads and the methodic thump of a shovel clearing the fields. Winds that carried the smells of sun-ripened watermelon and mules in the barn. Winds that carried the heat of summer even though we were at the edge of spring. Words flowed from his mouth in deep baritone waves, the magic falling onto the fields and seeping into the irrigation ditches . . .
     Each of the three sprung from the clouds . . . . And there, at their knee, was the fourth giant, looking up to the men he would become. For one glorious afternoon the stories spun together, a magic quilt suspended in the air, enveloping me in the stories I needed to know . . . He looked to me with tears in his blue eyes, but behind his sadness was hope. When he broke our silence, his words washed over me. "They lived the stories, and I learned to weave them with my voice many years ago. You heard my call, because you are one of us. The final in our line, chosen to carry the history forward." And with this declaration his magic spilled inside of me, and finally I understood.
     I am descended from giants.
Conoley says she was raised on 1980s action films, Jem and the Holograms, X-Men, and big-brother mandated Star-Wars. Decades later she started writing fantasy novels, flash fiction, and essays. In 2012, she became the Managing Editor of Kansas City Voices, an arts and literary magazine. If you'd like to see more of her writing, check out her website.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

How Can a Mother?

By Bacopa Literary Review Flash Story Editor, Kaye Linden

Bacopa 2017 submissions included the genre "flash story," which could be fiction, creative nonfiction, or memoir of 750 words or less. Below, I have posted a piece of memoir that could be submitted as flash story, flash memoir, flash creative nonfiction, or as a prose poem of 748 words not counting the title This piece is character driven, with a prose poem format that leans enough towards a story with a tiny plot or series of events, that I would accept as a flash story. Note the eccentric use of language and lack of traditional grammar. I'm a nontraditional poetry and flash story editor and invite you to submit your tightly written stories or prose poems next year. (See also my 35 Tips for Writing a Brilliant Flash Story)

How Can a Mother?
A memoir in flash
748 words by Kaye Linden
The folding unfolding picnic chair, yellow, green, white striped against dark wooden legs, folding down into a canvas seat for a three-year old's little girl body to sit still, stay quiet, so the adults might converse over picnic lunch, (Kentucky fried slaughtered chicken and other innocents) on the edge, innocents on the ledge ...

Who does that?
What mother places an unfolding folding chair on the crest of a cliff?
For a three-year old in a red and white checkered dress, (lace collar and flouncy skirt, white sox and white sandals)
a larger cliff than for a mother, a large folding cliff that folds down and around and in on itself, bendy yet rigid, up and down and rocky and fashioned with tiny rocks and pebbles and hurting sticks and stones that do break bones and what mother does that?
What mother places an unfolding folding chair on the brink of a cliff?
A mother who is watching someone else,
a mother whose eyes follow a man with ginger hair,
a mother who only has eyes for the man who carries the picnic basket.

That mother doesn't see


The red and white checked dress with the lace collar and flounced skirt, the white sandals and white sox, so disgustingly innocent, but I can still feel the seer-sucker texture of the new skirt between my chubby fingers, the gut-stirring excitement of a trek up the winding path of the sandy hill, the sound of crashing surf over ancient rock, the anticipation of a day in the Australian sun, on an aboriginal icon where weathered carvings in moss-covered boulders spoke stories of boomerangs and kangaroos hunted. A wind blew strong that day, my fine blonde baby hair blowing around my round face.

That day, my father insisted on bringing his best friend--the ginger-haired man he encouraged my mother to see every day, his large frame shadowing the paths along which he walked. He tossed me onto his shoulders and neighed like a horse blowing beer breath, everyone laughing at his Australian humor. They told me to call him "Uncle Hank." But he wasn't a blood uncle, just a "close friend" who should be "respected" like an uncle--
a bastard with heavily freckled arms, muscled all over, a punch worthy body, huge fists, calloused knuckles, a beer bellied bastard
At the top of the hill, my parents and "Uncle Hank" laid out folding picnic chairs on the flattened, beaten down grass dirt surface, kicked away sticks and stones and other bleached half-eaten chicken bones tossed by other mindless people seeking a retreat into well-worn trails. The cleared space allowed my parents and the man to decorate the red tablecloth with silver spoons and forks and what was wrong with plastic spoons and forks except that, oh I get it now, they could have blown away in the wind, over the cliff edge.
A shadowed figure of a mother hovered over the folding unfolding stool and placed it hastily on the cliff, close enough to the edge, randomly placed, I'm sure, not a murderous intention but a thoughtless one.

More beer came out, warm and hot, Australian Lager at its best.

"Let's drink to friendship," the glass mugs clinked. Large biting ants crawled across the picnic blanket and over my legs, biting until red welts appeared. I cried.

"What's the matter?" the how- can- a- mother voice beamed, sap-filled sweetness, dripping

"Ants are biting."

"Just brush them off."

I brushed and swiped, slapped red the child skin

The folding unfolding stool rocked and rocked, unfolding in slow motion over the edge

a tumble, rocks scratching like cats' claws shredding new girl skin, jabbing, stabbing at  

the child rolling over pokey sticks and bits and pieces of wave-dumped debris.

Not a killing fall,

but a wake-up fall.

Down she fell to the rocks where surf crashed and spray sprayed the seer-sucker dress, a piece of lace collar and a sandal tossed onto rocks.

White foam. Salt air. Cuts, scratches.

Frantic adult voices from above. "Are you alright?"

"Uncle Hank's coming to get you."

The lumbering of heft and heroic strength slide down the cliff on large man buttocks, a starving soul desperate for salvation.

Where was my father?

The man picked me up and laughed. "You'll be ok" said in a croon supposed to dismiss pain.
She cried big girl tears that day and ruined a perfectly good picnic.
Oh well.

I'm sure they had many more.
~         ~           ~
Note from Editor in Chief Mary Bast: See Stephanie Dickinson's 413-word "Emily and the Bobcat;" also her "Iowa" and "Marjorie." Then get your hands on Margaret Atwood's collection The Tent -- "a collection of very short pieces, some only a paragraph long" -- plus other flash collections mentioned in LitHub's A Crash Course in Flash Fiction. Also the superb, 241-word "Esse" from Czeslaw Milosz (listed at the Nobel Prize site as a "poem" and in Flash Fiction International as "fiction"), Marco Denevi's amusingly weird flash fiction "The Lord of the Flies," "Aglaglagl" by Bruce Holland Rogers (also a Bacopa 2013 contributor), Jessica Goodfellow's "Landlocked," Tara Laskowski's "Little Girls."

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Deeper Look at the Human Experience

By Literary Fiction Editor U.R. Bowie

Of the roughly five hundred submissions I read last year, many were declined because -- even in well-crafted stories -- I wasn't finding an original voice. Literary fiction has a distinctive voice that does more than tell a simple story: beautiful writing that offers a deeper look at the human experience, with uniquely individual phrasing, fresh and authentic.

Afia Atakora's work won Bacopa Literary Review 2016's First Prize in Fiction and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize because she has a fine feel for the structure of a story, an original voice, and an artist's touch for the rhythm of sentences.The beginning of "The Crooked Man" will give you a glimpse of Atakora's compelling style:
My mother has time to make me beautiful before we see the crooked man. "I will not," she says, "clean someone else's behind and have my child looking a sight."
     So I sit on the floor and she sits on the couch and she clamps her big powerful mother thighs around my little girl head all the better for the unpicking and the reknitting of my spiralling plaits.
     It's like a hug, if hugs are meant to confine, but there's a certain comfort in the warmth of her knees on my ears and the smell of her legs which is cocoa butter and the smell of her feet which is Bengay and the smell of her toes which is fresh red nail polish. I am almost lulled by the song she hums and sings and hums when the words don't come in the language that is hers but not mine.
     I want to say "Oww ow ow" but by now I know that does no good.
     "You don't," she says, "want to be looking a mess." No I don't want to be a sight or a mess, but I still fidget and wiggle as she wields the afro comb in the landscape of my knotty hair.
     I am not allowed to move, not at all. I only see the floor, the weave of the rough carpet, the piece of candy under the armchair, its sticky coating calling dust. My mother yanks my hair when she needs a different angle. My head in her lap I see the water stains on the ceiling drifted like brown clouds. I miss the morning, when my mother is the most gentle, when the sun is nowhere yet and the sky is as much pink as it is blue and I am burrowed in the sheets of the bed we share.
     "Not yet," she tells me and I borrow the warm of her and wait, "Not morning yet, little girl."
     And when finally she opens her eyes we pray together amongst the untucked sheets, our knees on the mattress, our hands palm up on the pillow and our faces in our hands, "give us this day our daily bread," and we laugh when my stomach gurgles.
     When my hair is perfectly presentable -- four new twists, two on the top like horns, two from the back like white girl pigtails, my scalp all scoured and sore and shining with coconut oil -- she frees me, briefly.
     My mother presents the zip-lock bag, its crude zip mechanisms no longer functional, its clear plastic clouded by hair oil and time. That bag brimming over with my prized collection of hair clips and bows and beads and plastic balls on elastic like gleaming jaw breakers in every conceivable color.
      This is a treat, to be decorated so beautifully, to feel something like a tree come to flowering, a wonderfulness so rare that I know today to be a special sort of day. I know I have to please the crooked man.
Afia Atakora is currently earning her MFA at Columbia University. She lives in Avenel, New Jersey, where she is at work on a novel about a reconstruction-era midwife.

(More about Literary Fiction in The Huffington Post.)

Monday, January 9, 2017

In Love with Eva

by Bacopa Literary Review Editor-in-Chief Mary Bast

When novelists are also poets, we are not surprised to find their fiction writing particularly lyrical. The work of Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) is described as "for the eye and the ear simultaneously," Alice Walker's writing (The Color Purple) is "passionate, political, personal, and poetic," Russell Bank's The Sweet Hereafter is "beautiful enough to be considered poetry," and Margaret Atwood's writing (The Handmaid's Tale ) pulls "towards art on the one hand, and towards life on the other."

It's no surprise, then, that Joseph Saling, our 2016 Fiction Runner-Up Prize-Winner, is also a poet (see A Matter of Mind, Foothills Publishing). With only a few excerpts from "Eva," you can begin to appreciate Saling's melodic writing, compelling story, and beautifully drawn characters:
... I first saw her in my father's ceramic art class. He sometimes took me to the studio, and I would sit at a table with the mostly middle-aged women, playing with a ball of clay that I alternately dipped in a bowl of water and squished in my hands. The women thought I was cute, and nearly every one found a reason to touch me at some point during the evening's class. I remember most as being round and smelling like kitchens.
Eva was different... She was tall, angular not round, and while the others seemed familiar, like aunts, Eva was distant. I thought she must be a queen, and the strange angularity of her accent only enhanced the idea... Her clothes were silky, and when I could, I'd get next to her just to touch her skirt. I was fascinated by her long red hair and slender fingers, and if it's possible a five-year-old could be in love, I was in love with Eva.
... There are two stairways to the second floor--one in the front of the house and one in back. The door to Eva's room is exactly half way along the hall between them. Opposite the room's open door, sunlight streams through windows on either side of a fireplace, and a canopied bed dominates the center of the room, carvings of naked women wrapping themselves about its posts. Eva leads me to the bed and unsnaps my bow tie. "You're such a handsome boy," she says, sitting with her hands flat on either side of her. "I'm going to change. You undress, and when I come back, we'll try on your new clothes. Get undressed."
... while I was in the middle of my second divorce, at the urging of my therapist, I sent my parents a letter. It contained just one question: "Are you my biological parents?" My father answered. "I assure you that you are my son." My therapist thought it a strange response, and as we explored what it could mean, Eva began to grow in my memory.
... We eat breakfast at the table beside her window. There are bowls of strawberries, sweet cereals floating in milk, jams in jars without labels, hot breads on which the butter melts in golden pools, and fat oranges that Eva peels and separates and lays on my plate...
You can read the full story of Joseph Saling's "Eva" in Bacopa Literary Review 2016, follow Joe's blog The New Word Mechanic, and see more of his work online at Blue Lake Review. Other links to Joe's work include a Review of A Matter of Mind (Expansive Poetry), "The Eye in the Sky" (The Innisfree Poetry Journal), "Captain Lee" (The Chimera, Issue 6, Feature Theme: Well-Wrought Form), and an earlier blog, The Word Mechanic: The Grandpa explores a life working with words).