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This week we have a review of the short story collection None of This Is Real by Miranda Mellis (Sidebrow, 2012). It comes to us, interestingly, from Catherine Gammon, whose novel Sorrow was reviewed by Geri Lipschultz here on this blog last month. (This is just one instance of an author whose work was featured in the Women Writers Wednesday series being inspired to participate in the series herself. I love it when that happens!)

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“Truly, a person may become an abyss: I felt it happening to me…” says the narrator of “Face,” the opening story in Miranda Mellis’s None of This is Real, a collection that like the line itself invites the reader to enter identity as shape shifter and narrative as potentially infinite transformation—to fall into the groundlessness of the world.

 

SB005-MELLIS-COVER-front-300

 

In “Face,” the narrating “I” that is a voice, potentially a character, disappears into its (her?) own face, in what it (she?) calls an illness, triggered by occasions of intimacy—the face taking over, “twitching, leering, telling a story over which I had no control.”

“Normal” intimacies for this narrator—“taking walks with friends, eating chocolates, giving advice”—are gone, the face falling into its “antic, sneering rebellions” whenever “deeper acquaintance, some superstructure of expectation to companionship, a closeness or depth of feeling or sincerity [was] required.”

More than just a first story, the shortest of the five that make up the collection, “Face” can be read as a preface to the whole, a preface in which the now non-speaker’s face becomes “a kaleidoscopic mask; people weren’t sure who they were looking at,” while the story, the voice of the story, the narrator who will not be a character, who feels “nonexistence encroaching” while the “body was rejecting meaning”—this voice of the story offers, “If I had ever been in a scene (and I had), those days were gone,” and finally asks of its future, “for what do I prepare?”

With these words, the tiny drama of the face becomes a manifesto of refusal, an opposition to the claims of so-called realism to command the rules of narrative—at the very least, for the duration of this collection, in which the five stories, by the very nature of their intentions and strategies, are entirely compelling in their narrative momentum. Their crystalline language, their manifestations and materializations of thought, their witty transformations of the so-called real­ world (all the more recognizable in Mellis’s playful distortions of it) invite and thoroughly satisfy. But as Mellis’s characters struggle with their mothers, with work, with ambition and failure, with love and loss and worlds collapsing, it may be the deployment of these gifts in the drive of storytelling itself, in the movement forward with a character or characters, a situation or situations, that as thoroughly captivates a reader’s curiosity and concern.

Each in its way, these are mental stories, each its own mind, its own world, as mind and world interact their way to revelation. These are stories of metamorphosis, not so much psychological as ontological, or simply linguistic, transformations—etymological, even metonymical, stories of the word. A man becomes a shark. A stalled line at a coffeehouse extends endlessly, until it permanently encompasses all the world. A child lives in her life as at a movie, believing she can turn away from what she does not want to see, attempting to bargain reality magically into being as she wants it—by not looking, hoping to keep visibility and violence at bay. A daughter, not precisely human, in an “old world” of fairy-tale magic, almost once upon a time (“hoping to please, as all young do”), migrates into a present reality that reveals itself as only slightly closer to dystopic than our own, ultimately arriving (via a science fictionally distant future) at the end of surveillance and simulation, all the world dissolving, collapsing beneath and behind her, to bring the collection to its close.

“None of This is Real,” the second story in the collection, centers on O, a character undergoing a transformation from within, the body in rebellion against its limitations as human. The story proceeds as if in a realist vein, only slowly revealing its fabulist premise; at the same time the elements of O’s transformation are embedded in the language throughout.

O visits his mother; they talk at cross purposes, O raising concerns about environmental degradation and surveillance, his mother acquiescing to social reality as it is and offering her troubled son platitudes that can’t meet his confusions. A would-be writer of “an unprecedented, encyclopedic, world-historical novel,” O works as a page in a library three states away, where he collects devastating data on the condition of the world:

But it was increasingly apparent—though he tried to ignore this oppressive knowledge—that new techniques in climate change adaptations, urban agriculture, toxic waste mitigation, soil remediation, foreclosure opportunism, oil spill cleanup, sex, self-defense, clairvoyance, and air and water filtration were considered more pressing than literary innovation.

He is troubled most of all by climate change:

The only answer he could think of was to re-evolve, or devolve, archaic equipment to tolerate heat and breathe underwater. Thick skins, gills, and fins. Animal adaptation seemed more promising than human politics anyway…. When he later learned that mass extinctions from the greenhouse effect would not include his species, which had brought it about, he was even more horrified by the injustice of cause and effect.

Suffering from mysterious headaches, O embarks on a journey through various forms of alternative and mystic healings, in search of connection, if not cure. The headaches are part of his body’s transformation, and this transformation continues throughout, in words and images that precede its recognition and might be understood themselves, like the words and rituals of magic, to bring the transformation into being. O, after all, is a page and his name an empty mark, his story not real, and his world is made, inescapably, of words, in play and magic both.

Various as the remaining stories are, this consciousness of their existing in and arising out of their language, rather than being represented by it, haunts them all.

If “None of This is Real” is the story of a mark and a page, “The Coffee Jockey” is the story of a line. It reveals its fundamental surreal move from the beginning, when a coffeehouse barista’s back goes out, halting the forward movement of the line of customers waiting, a line that inevitably grows, and grows without stopping. Everything follows from this, as with narrative freedom we travel out along the ever expanding line to encounter the people living their lives in waiting and follow the incidents the line is creating, until the waiting is an endless, permanent condition and the line itself is the entire world, both within the fiction and beyond it.

From loss of speech, to page and mark, to line, the collection turns next to figure, image, metonym. Rendered in the point of view of a young teenager, “Triple Feature” is a story without fabulist premises or fairy tale logic. It builds suspense out of the interplay between the girl’s acts of magical thinking and a technique of filmic terror—the suppressed knowledge of violence, its off-screen presence evoked by its absence and simultaneously made visible in voices overheard, an empty bedroom, a missing mother, the glimpse of a lone blue shoe, the hem of a robe caught in a closet door that will not open.

“Transformer,” the last story in the collection, begins as fairy tale and ends in science fiction, two liberating outliers of the imaginary, to complete the collection with a play on genre.

Although the title of this collection and the devices of the stories themselves constantly remind us that we are inhabiting fictional realities, the stories in None of This is Real demonstrate (as the most compelling “experimental” writing always seems to do) that in its freedoms of language and form, its radical inventions, the so-called experimental is capable of more richly and more accurately evoking and illuminating the dangers and complexities, the mysteries, of the so-called real than that so-called realism which plays strictly by what it imagines to be fiction’s rules.

As I write this, a video circulating on Facebook is demonstrating that with the mind we can see a subway train as going in either possible direction—the mind works the illusion, drives the perception. But Facebook observers are quick to comment that if you put your body on the train, the train will go in only one direction, no matter what game you play with your mind.

So are these stories like those mind games, clever illusions without consequence once we put ourselves on the train? At the end of “Transformers,” the world vanishes behind the magical daughter, Lutz Junior. But as it vanishes, without sight or sound or feeling, Lutz Junior knows she lands. Which is to say, the answer to the question is to read the stories, to play the game.

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Catherine Gammon is a fiction writer and Soto Zen priest. Her novel Sorrow (Braddock Avenue Books, 2013) was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. Her novel Isabel Out of the Rain was published in 1991 by Mercury House, and her shorter fiction has appeared in many literary journals, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The New England Review, Third Coast, and Other Voices among them. Before beginning residential Zen training at San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, Catherine served on the faculty of the MFA program of the University of Pittsburgh. More information is available at catherinegammon.com and writingasawisdomproject.wordpress.com.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

This week’s review comes to us from Joyce Thierry Llewellyn, who has chosen My Ex From Hell, a YA novel by Tellulah Darling.

Joyce Thierry Llewellyn is a film and television screenwriter and story editor, screenwriting instructor at the Vancouver Film School, and heads off into the sunset whenever she can to explore new territories for her creative non-fiction travel writing. Find her online at http://tamarackjourneyproductions.com/.

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You’ve heard her name given to a character in two Matrix movies, one Stephen King book, numerous video games, read about her in Greek mythology, and seen her name on the side of the logging tug in the longest running Canadian TV series, The Beachcombers. Persephone. In Greek mythology Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. She was abducted by Hades, the king of the underworld, leaving Demeter so distraught she refused to let anything grow on Earth until Hades agreed to let Persephone spend half the year above ground. In My Ex From Hell, YA author Tellulah Darling has taken this familiar myth and given it a red hot chili pepper update. As the author herself writes: “It’s a Greek mythology smackdown as love meets comedy with a whole lot of sass in Book One of this teen romance series. Compared to Kai and Sophie, Romeo and Juliet had it easy.”

My Ex From Hell jpg

In My Ex From Hell (Book One in the Blooming Goddess Trilogy), sixteen-year-old Sophie Bloom’s life is a daily mix of standard teen drama constantly being stirred up by the fact she keeps saying and doing what she shouldn’t at her boarding school. But a kiss from bad boy Kai at the Halloween dance changes everything and awakens Sophie’s true identity, that of Persephone, Goddess of Spring. She suddenly finds herself the target of unwanted attention from Hades and Zeus because she is the only person who can save humanity from their Underworld versus Olympus battle for world domination. There’s also the frustrating fact that Sophie remembers someone tried to murder her when she was last Persephone, but who was it? Add into the story mix her need to figure out what she can and cannot do with her goddess powers — and just how can she outsmart the bad guys? Then there are those Kai kisses, but his dad is Hades. Complications just keep piling up.

My Ex From Hell has it all: smart writing, secrets hidden and revealed, fight scenes, comedy, and good old-fashioned romance. Although this book was written for a YA audience, this novel and its two follow-ups are rich in action and kick-ass repartee that will appeal to adults, too. The author’s film and television screenwriting background is evident in the snappy dialogue that zaps back and forth between friends and enemies. If you and I had Sophie in our pack in high school, there wouldn’t have been a dull moment in our days. The second and third books in the series, My Date From Hell and My Life from Hell are also available. As Tellulah Darling writes on her website, “Sassy girls. Swoony boys. What could go wrong?” In Darling’s books, plenty!

See more about Darling’s work at her website here.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

This week’s review comes to us from Rebecca Burns. She has taken on Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which is about the end of the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir of Iceland.

Burns herself has a new book out, The Settling Earth. In her own words, it is “a collection of interlinked historical short stories set in colonial New Zealand. It fictionalises the experiences of settlers in the nineteenth century, and how British settlers made sense of life in a new land. A story written by a Maori guest author is also included, Continue Reading »

Before I introduce this week’s review, I want to say how much I’ve been enjoying the Women Writers Wednesday series. It started as a desire to demonstrate some of the many contributions women have made to literature — a flickering candleflame of one blog rebelling against the general misogyny of the publishing world’s corner of social media. When I put the call out to other women writers, the response was strong. This weekly series is booked all the way to May, with new additions still coming in. I’ve been thrilled with the response and appreciate it so much. I love not being a lone voice. Thank you, sincerely, to everyone who has participated in any way: fellow reviewers, people who share these posts on social media, those who are reading them, those who are simply voicing their support of the concept. Thank you so much.

So this week’s installment comes from Tria Wood, who responds to Excavation: A Memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz. This book came out last year from Future Tense Books.

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When I was a senior in high school, my favorite teacher took me aside one day. “Be careful in college,” she warned, “because there are professors who will try to seduce you by telling you how intelligent you are.” I nodded, but thought otherwise. I know I’m smart, I said to myself. What I want is someone to tell me I’m beautiful. I wasn’t yet equipped to recognize the truth in my teacher’s warning: that to be a smart girl is sometimes so difficult that it becomes a vulnerability that can be exploited.

Wendy C. Ortiz’s Excavation: A Memoir tells the story of the five-year relationship Ortiz had with one of her junior high teachers, whom she calls Jeff Ivers. Her careful diary-keeping during those years helps craft a text that is rich with detail and immediacy. Ortiz guides the reader through the story of this relationship and her adult reflections on it with skill and poetic flair. Throughout the text, Ortiz performs the excavation promised by the title; the digging she must do to tell her story is illustrated by short scenes from her adult life, including a walk along the La Brea Tar Pits with her infant daughter. The past, preserved as if in sticky tar, is pulled up excruciatingly, and becomes something she can examine and learn from.

Excavation (cover art)

“During those teenage years my self-worth was something I felt was small enough to hold,” Ortiz writes. “It was my pen, my paper and sometimes, maybe, my ability to attract people to me.” It is into this need that Mr. Ivers steps. By appealing first to her intelligence—her writing—and next her attractiveness, he manipulates her into an on-again, off-again relationship that she feels obligated to maintain due to complicated combinations of attraction, shame, and fear of being “average.” As Ortiz also negotiates relationships with boys her age and ponders the attraction she feels toward girls, Mr. Ivers becomes a touchstone for her, a knot she must work at until it finally unravels.

author Wendy C. Ortiz

author Wendy C. Ortiz

Throughout this memoir, Ortiz captures the rolling emotional boil of being a teenager, the overwhelming intensity of every feeling, whether high or low. I especially recognized the sense of power the young Ortiz feels in fits and starts at the idea that someone—this man—wants her. At that age, it doesn’t matter that this power might be an illusion. It matters only that it provides some small barricade against the debilitating void of wanting to be wanted. As an adult, I can see each of Mr. Ivers’s abusive machinations for what it is, yet I cannot blame the young Ortiz for being lured in by him. His character and methods will ring true to anyone who has been in a manipulative or emotionally abusive relationship; he is an expert at making her feel she must stay with him, clinging to her even as he cuts her down and pushes her away.

Secret relationships like this one seem to stud smart girls’ teenage years; think Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano in their boiler room makeout sessions. In the midst of our wanting, someone appears, seems to see something in us that no one else does, and we become satisfied with the pittance of attention that he allots us behind closed doors. In high school, I had this kind of relationship with a boy my own age; in reading Excavation, I realize that the fact that I didn’t fall for some older man’s overtures is perhaps due only to the fact that no man ever made them.

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Tria Wood is a writer and educator living in Houston, Texas. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have recently appeared in Rattle, Sugar House Review, Bayou, and Literary Mama. My Life as a Doll, a large-scale literary art installation she created with artist Tara Conley, was exhibited at DiverseWorks Artspace in Houston in 2011. Find her online at triawood.com.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

When I was a kid, I got an allowance. It was tied to my chores, and if I did them, I got my dollar or two a week. I saved it in a thick glass Snoopy bank that cleverly had no stopper, so in order to get the money out, I had to literally break the bank. Once I figured that out, the money started going into a wallet. I’m sure I must have spent it here or there, but the only place I really remember doing so was at the annual Book Fair at my school’s library. I have a vivid memory of excitedly counting out seven dollars when I was in second grade, money I had carefully saved, knowing that I would be able to buy not only three new books for myself, but new bookmarks and tree ornaments for my siblings for Christmas. Good times.

When I had children of my own and the “gimme!” tantrums began every time we went to the store, I realized it was time to give them an allowance. But I didn’t like the idea of paying them to clean up after themselves. Picking up your toys when you’re done playing with them and putting your dirty clothes in the hamper are skills you should have by kindergarten. My husband and I wanted our kids to be able to pick up after themselves because they are capable of it and it’s appropriate that they should; we are not their maids.

As they got older, we wanted them to assume more responsibilities, like helping to set the table or bringing their dirty dishes to the sink. Carrying their backpacks out of the car every afternoon. Making their beds. And if they grew up with the expectation that we would pay them to be, essentially, functioning members of the household, then they would never have the motivation not to be slobs if there weren’t a monetary reward. (And if this seems like an unrealistic concern, then you’re hanging out with much more evolved children than we are.)

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Speaking of more evolved children… My friend Steven Tesney recently published this post on the Daddy Issues blog about the way they handle allowances in his family, and it’s an interesting system — more sophisticated in its philosophy than most I’ve encountered so far. I’m interested in what you think of it.

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So instead of paying our kids to not be slobs, we started giving them a few dollars a week for no other reason than to have it, just so they can learn how to manage money for themselves. If they want to buy candy or Pokémon cards from the grocery store, that’s coming out of their allowance. We give them a smallish amount, because there’s not really much call for them to need to spend their money; we pay for things like gifts for their friends and extra fun things at school and outings. We give them bonuses, too: if they participate in a big chore (like helping us clean the cars or pulling weeds from the garden or raking leaves in the yard), there’s extra money for that; if we go to a festival or on vacation, we give them a chunk of money to spend on souvenirs and games and rides, and anything they don’t spend, they get to keep.

And if they don’t do their chores? They lose privileges like screen time.

But our system isn’t perfect. I wonder whether we’re giving them enough money. Some people advocate a dollar for each year of age per week, but most of the people I know who do that have only one child. Even though we tell the kids they need to divide their allowance equally between “spend,” “save,” and “donate,” sometimes the lines between those blur a little when Tiny Beowulf really wants to spend money on something. Sometimes they lose one of those little banks or wallets somewhere in the depths of their closets or bedrooms and choose to compromise quickly rather than spend some time looking for their stuff. The inconsistency makes it difficult to establish a good habit.

What do you do? If you have kids, how do you handle allowances, if at all? If you don’t have kids yourself but received an allowance when you were young, how did you earn it, and did the mechanics of your family’s system work well? I’m interested in hearing how the allowance debate is treated these days among all of you.

Please, discuss.  :)

 

This week’s review, of Fingerprints of You by Kristen-Paige Madonia, comes to us from Brenna Layne, whose bio follows.

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My mother got her third tattoo on my seventeenth birthday, a small navy hummingbird she had inked above her left shoulder blade, and though she said she picked it to mark my flight from childhood, it mostly had to do with her wanting to sleep with Johnny Drinko, the tattoo artist who worked in the shop outside town.

 

KP Madonia cover

 

With her very first sentence, Kristen-Paige Madonia paints a vivid portrait of the relationship between a mother and daughter. Judy Blume has called Madonia’s writing “luminous,” “original,” and “compelling.” As far as I’m concerned, if Judy Blume likes something, that’s reason enough to give it a try. As it happens, there’s a lot to love about this impressive debut novel.

Madonia tells the story of seventeen-year-old Lemon, who leaves her nomadic mother, Stella, and sets off on a journey of her own. As Lemon seeks out the father she’s never known, she carries her unborn baby, certain that her own child will never know its father. From the hot haze of a Virginia summer to the chaos and color of San Francisco, Lemon embarks on the best kind of odyssey—both outward, into the larger world, and inward, discovering exactly who she is and what matters most.

The interaction between quietly rebellious Lemon and larger-than-life Stella will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever felt overshadowed by a parent. Lemon’s struggle to define her life and relationships on her own terms is an instantly recognizable one, and her thoughtful, introspective voice brings it strongly to life. Both wonderfully quirky and sometimes painfully authentic, Lemon’s story is compelling from the first, marvelous opening sentence.

I’ve now read and re-read Fingerprints of You, and what strikes me most is Madonia’s ability to home in on the specific—one girl’s cross-country bus trip—while at the same time telling a classically American coming-of-age story, but with a difference. One of Lemon’s favorite books, On the Road, comes up again and again. Lemon, too, is on the road, but with an important difference—she’s a girl. American literature is full of stories of boys who hit the road, hop trains, see the world. It’s refreshing to read about a girl embarking on this iconic American journey. And it’s powerful. In her search to find where she belongs, not only for herself but for the child within her, she brings a new element of femininity to a familiar and usually masculine theme.

With her distinctive voice and wry sense of humor, Lemon is an entertaining narrator. With her flawed yet lovable personality, she’s one with which real teens can identify. But Fingerprints of You, like all the best young adult literature, is a great read for adults, too. The lessons Lemon learns on her journey are ones that we can all use reminding of from time to time. We all leave fingerprints on each other, indelibly marking each other’s lives in ways both great and small. And, as Madonia shows us, recognizing and accepting those invisible tattoos is an unavoidable step in the difficult and beautifully messy journey of growing up.

I was fortunate to meet Kristen-Paige Madonia at a local writer’s group shortly after the publication of Fingerprints of You. I’ve met a number of YA novelists over the past few years, but Madonia is the one who really stands out. She was engaged, helpful, and encouraging. I met her at a point in my own writing journey when I was becoming overwhelmed by discouragement. Her kindness and generosity in sharing her own journey—both its ups and downs—was a powerful reminder to me that as writers, we’re all on this journey together, and that no one, no matter how accomplished, has an easy time of it. Like its creator, Madonia’s work is encouraging, powerful, and deeply humane. Not bad fingerprints to leave on the publishing industry, or on the world in general.

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Brenna Layne writes fantasy novels about young adults because she believes in magic, likes dragons, and hasn’t figured out how to be a grown-up yet. She is currently seeking an agent. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her family and a growing menagerie of stray dogs, cats, and chickens. She blogs about the intersections between writing and life at www.brennalayne.com. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys beekeeping and broadsword combat.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

Last April, for National Poetry Month, I decided to feature a different poet (and poem) every day for thirty days. This series was wildly popular, and it made me really happy to be able to feature so many poets whom I knew among the thirty, including both seasoned, established writers and promising up-and-comers. You can find the first poem here and then just follow the daily links to the whole month of poetry.

I’d like to run this series again this year, but instead of coming up with the idea literally on April 1st and putting the whole series together in a few days, I want to curate the list from a wider spectrum and have more time to do it.

SO I’m announcing here today a call for poetry submissions! If you’d like to have your work considered for my National Poetry Month Poet-a-Day series, then please email me at forest.of.diamonds@gmail.com with “Poet-a-Day series” in the subject line. (Please do this so your email doesn’t get lost in my crowded inbox.) Give me a brief bio of yourself (75-100 words or shorter) and submit up to five poems. Response time will be no later than April (obviously). The deadline to be considered for this year’s series is March 15th.

And do please spread the word about this opportunity. Thank you!

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