Contributor Spotlights

Contributor Spotlight: Andrena Zawinski

In Fall of 2022, Arkana Editors spoke with poet and writer Andrena Zawinski. Her fiction piece, “Lotus,” appears in Arkana’s 12th Issue.

Arkana: This story is filled with strong female characters (Lotus, the narrator, her mother, etc.). How do you find the right balance between strength and vulnerability when writing about female empowerment?

Andrena Zawinski: Lotus’ desire to move into a progressive lifestyle—after her mother abandons her in the regressive attitude toward women having children out of wedlock—makes development of strength a necessary outcome emerging from imposed vulnerability as she is forced to navigate her life as an expectant mother alone.

ARK: The only man in the story is an anesthesiologist, there to manage the narrator’s pain, and he shows up drunk. Why did you include this detail?

AZ: The anesthesiologist is irresponsible where a woman’s life is in his hands. Other male mentions are also oblivious to women’s fundamental needs: “the smart ass intern” with wisecracks about the narrator’s predicament and struggle as well as the abusive “pothead, art school dropout, soon to be ex-husband” she must put behind. They are carefree where women struggle to survive and develop, capable of putting the skids to their trajectories.

ARK: Do you have a real “Lotus” in your life?

AZ: A woman I met in the maternity ward did awaken me to the feminism that was burgeoning at the time and who introduced me to her own newfound journey into Buddhism, a woman who made me feel less alone in that stage of life. Lotus and the narrator are very different from each other but have paths intersecting that made them very much the same in the challenges they face, which is why I gave them contrasting backgrounds and identical delivery dates.

I named her Lotus for the Lotus Sutra of the Nam-myoho-renge-kyo chant to overcome suffering, placing her chanting in the story where it seemed appropriate, whether the suffering was large or small, immediate or impending.

ARK: Do you agree with Simone de Beauvoir that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”?

AZ: Attaching the idea of not being born but becoming a woman to Lotus and implying it to the narrator seemed right because before them being women was yet to be fully determined, driving home the idea that biological determinism is tinged by social constructs, their gender taking on circumstances and values of social norms.  

ARK: Why did you choose to leave the narrator unnamed?

AZ: The narrator is “I” from the 1st person omniscient point of view that I think gives this piece of fiction the sense of truth-telling. And, in this story, all the facts, whether from memoir (which some are) or fiction (which many are), lead to the same end: a greater truth coming from facts of the matter, invented or real.

ARK: In addition to your work with Arkana, are there any other publications or projects you are working on? 

AZ: In 2022, I had two books published! One, in which “Lotus” appears, is a debut collection of flash fiction, Plumes & other flights of fancy, 80 pages from Writing Knights Press. The other is my fourth full-length collection of poetry, Born Under the Influence, 132 pages, released by Word Tech Editions.

ARK: It sounds like you’ve been pretty busy. We look forward to them! Thank you for visiting with us.

Read “Lotus” here!

Andrena Zawinski is a poet, shutterbug, and flash fiction writer. Her fourth full collection of poetry, Born Under the Influence, appears in September 2022 from Word Tech Press and debut collection of flash fiction, Plumes, in May 2022 from Writing Knights. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Contributor Spotlights

Contributor Spotlight: Zachary S. Johnson

Arkana Editors chatted with writer Zachary S. Johnson. His fiction piece, “A Small Fire in Ephraim’s Wood,” is featured in Arkana’s 12th Issue.

Arkana: The three perspectives in this story build off of each other to culminate in an emotional gut punch. Why did you decide to write from each brother’s POV rather than focus on a single character? 

Zachary S. Johnson: Well, I wanted to demonstrate that the characters weren’t bound to each others’ experience. When we think about sibling relationships—and I’m one of three boys myself—we tend to flatten distinctions between siblings without taking caution with the way each child’s experiences with their parents are formed. It’s not uncommon for siblings to have different individual relationships with each parent, and that’s certainly been my experience. They are brothers, and they do love each other dearly, I think. I just think that their respective ideas about love are grounded in vastly different principles.

ARK: With the epigraph and references to Beloved, this story is clearly inspired by Toni Morrison’s work. What do you find most powerful about her writing? How does it inform your own work?

ZSJ: Toni’s work helped me work through my grief; grief is something that sits by you and demands attention. Grief is like a child. It demands nurturing. You have to accommodate it—you cannot neglect it. Thankfully, I had a writer like Toni to look up to; her work reinforced for me that I am entitled to a complex relationship with grief…to complex relationships with all my emotions. They don’t have to fit squarely within certain paradigms or assumptions, be they racial, gendered, poverty-informed, etc. I have a Toni to look up to, and for that, I’m very grateful. Blessed! Being born when I was born, raised on that kind of literature.  

ARK: This story is a heartbreaking meditation on abandonment. What do you hope this piece communicates to your readers?

ZSJ: So the story was inspired by a real story (a la Beloved and Margaret Garner) that I read about two parents in Houston that had abandoned their three children in an apartment, and one of the children died. Notably, it was reported that his body had begun to rot when the police found the children. I’m convinced that there’s not a one-to-one relationship between abandonment and love. People abandon things they love all the time, and I think the absent parents in the story loved their children deeply. Perhaps even love will motivate us to make what seem like monstrous decisions. I’m sympathetic to those parents, you know? I hope that people can read this and feel things they’re not “supposed” to feel, like sympathy. 

ARK: Could you describe the significance of the biblical reference in your story’s title?

ZSJ: Yeah, the Battle of Ephraim’s Wood was a battle between David and his son Absalom. I have a real respect for the legacy of William Faulkner in the genre, and there’s always this problem of parentage in his work. The biblical stories present the occasional masterclass in family dysfunction, which I think is a big part of the divine message, maybe. That there’s some sort of deliverance from your “original sin,” the generational trauma that contorts your emotional ecology. Like, perhaps that’s salvation. With regard to these boys, I think this is a case of divine intervention gone wrong. And they’re all searching for a kind of deliverance.

ARK: In addition to your work with Arkana, are there any other publications or projects you are excited about? (What are you working on now?)

ZSJ: Well, law school is pretty demanding (I didn’t end up going to Duke, I’m at Harvard now), but in between my assignments, I’ve been working through some horror stories. I have a story that’s influenced by a classic, “The Lottery,” that I hope will see the light of day somewhere. I love what the writers on FX’s Atlanta are doing with the genre too. I took a trip out to Martha’s Vineyard in July, and I found myself wandering about, thinking about town secrets and taboos. So hopefully, around the next submission period, I’ll have the pleasure of getting that to Arkana. I like you guys.

ARK: Thank you so much! You know, Shirley Jackson’s story still haunts me to this day. I can imagine the balance between school and writing must be hectic, but look forward to seeing something influenced by Jackson’s work. So, I hope that comes to fruition as well.

ZSJ: I’m just very thankful that this work got to see the light of day. It was a very personal effort—that it resonated with the editorial board means so much.

ARK: We are excited to have your piece in our issue! Thank you for speaking with us, and we look forward to seeing what’s ahead for you!

Read “A Small Fire in Ephraim’s Wood” here!

Zachary S. Johnson is a graduate of the University of Arkansas. A native of Little Rock, he’s a writer, poet, and author of “A Small Fire in Ephraim’s Wood.” He is a student at Harvard University School. He currently lives in Dallas, Texas with his partner and attack dog, Seiko the Yorkie.

Image Credit: Albrecht Fietz

Contributor Spotlights

Contributor Spotlight: Molly Wadzeck Kraus

Arkana Editors chatted with poet and essayist Molly Wadzeck Kraus. Her creative nonfiction piece, “to the pretty brunette in group therapy at the psych ward,” won the Editor’s Choice Award and is featured in Arkana’s 12th Issue.

Arkana: Partially because of its setting and second-person address, “to the pretty brunette …” reminded one of our editors of several short pieces by George Saunders. In regards to writing style, did you have a conscience influence when writing this piece?

Molly Wadzeck Kraus: What a compliment to think of Saunders! Because this piece is deeply personal and explores serious topics like suicide and substance abuse, I wanted the narrative device to remove the focus from me. The ‘girl’ in question functions as a placeholder for my insecurities, thoughts, and judgments about the other residents, my circumstances, and my shame. Speaking to her, rather than writing about me, allowed me to kind of step away from those uncomfortable and anxious feelings I get when talking about myself in such a vulnerable way.

When considering the writing style and what would be effective, I had recently finished reading Yaa Gyasi’s stunning novel Homegoing for the second time. I was struck by how she uses language—moving seamlessly from lyrical analogy to repetitious, short, punchy plot-moving sentences.

ARK: Although “to the pretty brunette …” works well as a stand-alone piece, is it, or could it be part of a larger collection?

MWK: It is part of an early-stage, haphazardly organized collection, mostly stream of consciousness essays and notes tucked away in some Google docs. This was the first piece to come to fruition.

ARK: What inspired you to write this piece?

MWK: It’s a creative reimagining and interpretation of a journal I kept during my stay in the mental health unit. Some of the quotes are directly lifted from it. I wanted to write about my scariest experience and process the trauma that both preceded and followed. Mental health care in this country is in shambles; I’m one of the lucky few to have support and resources. Still, my stay, even under my privileged conditions, not only did not really help me but also crushed much of the remaining optimism I had about recovery and healing within the system. It left me more heartbroken, and for years I struggled to find a way to communicate the complex effects it had on me.

ARK: Was Betty real?

MWK: Every character in the piece is real, with names changed to protect privacy.  

ARK: We appreciate your attention to privacy! 

ARK: In addition to creative nonfiction, in what other genres do you write?

MWK: I am a poet, and I also write semi-reported, opinion, and personal essays covering reproductive justice/rights, pop culture, and parenting.

ARK: And of course, we always want to know, in addition to your work with Arkana, are there any other publications or projects you are excited about? What are you working on now?

MWK: I gave birth to my third child after I completed this piece and took a brief hiatus from producing new work. I have a few recently released poems in two works of print: From the Waist Down: The Body in Healthcare (Papeachu Press) and Consequence Forum’s Volume 14.2. As for what’s in the works, I am continuing to chase the dream of publishing my first collection of essays and submitting individual pieces when I find the right homes for them.

ARK: We are glad this piece found its home with Arkana! Thank you for visiting with us!

MWK: I am beyond honored to answer your questions and have a journal engaging with my work on this level. Thank you!

ARK: We are equally excited to have your work available to our readers, editors, and friends in the literary community.

Read “to the pretty brunette in group therapy at the psych ward” here!

Molly Wadzeck Kraus is a freelance writer, poet, and essayist. Born and raised in Waco, Texas, she moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she worked in animal rescue and welfare for many years. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Trouvaille Review, Papeachu Press, Litbreak Magazine, among others.

Contributor Spotlights

Contributor Spotlight: Erin Townsend

Arkana Editors chatted with writer and Editor’s Choice Award winner Erin Townsend. Her fiction piece, “Stitches,” is featured in Arkana’s 12th Issue.

Arkana: This piece beautifully addresses the difficult subject of having to watch a loved one suffer. Does this stem from personal experience?

Erin Townsend: Sort of – there are personal elements present for sure, but as with all of my fiction, things have been changed, added to, subtracted from, embellished, etcetera. It started with some truth and grew into something else. My dad is fine, is what I’m saying. 

ARK: Maps continue to show up as a motif throughout this story, seemingly as a way for the main character to attempt to exert control over an uncontrollable situation (especially when the GPS is wrong near the end). What was the significance of using maps as a way for the narrator to connect with her father?

ET: Well, there’s the foremost connection of trying to find a kind of “path” to another person, both the narrator and their father being lost to one another, in some way. And you’re definitely right about that sense of trying to control something uncontrollable. I also liked the parallel it afforded to the mapping of memories and the way that worked with the more literal mapping of a brain; it had a lot of built-in complications that I was excited to explore.

ARK: In the story, you play with form as a way to skip around in time. We loved how this enabled you to handle each moment so delicately. What made you decide to write this as a series of vignettes?

ET: I’m partial to vignettes for different reasons, but for this story specifically, the piecemeal approach seemed like a good representation of the father-daughter relationship here: composed of snippets, not quite whole. And in some sense, each vignette ended up feeling like a point of interest on a map, which I liked as well. 

ARK: How did you choose the order and arrangement of the vignettes?

ET: This very rarely happens in my pieces, but I think the order of the vignettes in the final piece is the same order I wrote them in initially. It very much felt like an association game; I wanted them to be roughly chronological while still allowing for memories to bleed through where they felt most natural.

ARK: The narrator and her father use humor to cope with their situation. Does this mark a change in their relationship, or have they always communicated in this way? In some ways, is she already mourning the loss of her father before he’s gone?

ET: I imagined that they have always communicated this way; it’s an exercise in trying to connect while still maintaining emotional distance. Despite this new tragedy, they keep resorting to old habits and still can’t quite connect the way that they want to, or feel they should. And definitely, the narrator is mourning here. Not just because the future loss is now immediately inevitable but also for the slow changes over time and what that steals from their relationship, from her memories of her father, or even from what their relationship could have been. 

ARK: In addition to your work with Arkana, are there any other publications or projects you are excited about? What are you working on now?

ET: For sure! I was fortunate enough to be a part of a collaboration with the Frick museum recently, so I have a story coming out in a collection they’re doing at the end of March, which I’m very excited about. And right now, I’m working on a novel (I assume this is required by law, but if anyone knows any loopholes, let me know), which I hope to finish a full draft of by the end of my in-residency fellowship here at NYU. Fingers crossed!

ARK: Regarding Ingres: Fourteen Short Stories with an introduction by Darin Strauss will release in March 2023. This collaboration sounds very exciting!

ET: I just wanted to thank everyone at Arkana for all the support! This has been a really lovely experience, and I appreciate everything you’re doing and have done. 

ARK: We would like to thank you as well! We love to get excited about the work our artists are doing and help in any way we can to connect readers to writers; those connections include our editors’ own personal discoveries. We will keep our fingers crossed for your novel draft and look forward to more of your work in the future!

Read “Stitches” here!

Erin Townsend is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her work has been featured in the Long River Review, Paper Droids Magazine, and others, and has received the Jennie Hackman Award for short fiction. Currently, she is finishing her last year of an MFA at New York University.

Contributor Spotlights

Contributor Spotlight: Melissent Zumwalt

Arkana Editors chatted with artist, advocate, and writer Melissent Zumwalt. Her creative nonfiction piece, “It All Happens at a McDonald’s,” is featured in Arkana’s 12th Issue.

Arkana: What role does reflection play in your writing process?

Melissent Zumwalt: The themes and moments I choose to write about have often been spinning around in my head for years (and sometimes decades!), so reflection on events that happened, what they mean to me and those around me, and how they relate to larger societal contexts, is an intrinsic part of the writing process for me. Although, I don’t typically use a lot of reflection on the page itself. I’m more interested in creating a setting or a moment that a reader can step into and then reflect upon the events for themselves. That’s what I’ve always loved about reading, the ability to enter other worlds and vantage points and imagine what it would look and feel like, what sense I might make out of a situation. Because of this, I think my writing might read a little more like fiction sometimes than memoir. I’ve been experimenting with imbuing a bit more meaning-making and written reflection into some of my pieces lately, though.

ARK: “It All Happens at a McDonald’s” mentions that your dream was to become a professional dancer. What drew you to writing?

MZ: My mom was my first dance teacher, but she was also an inadvertent storyteller (about her own life and our larger family and their past) with a real knack for recounting the ridiculous and the tragic. As I grew up, it was a natural transition to informally telling family stories myself since I’d always seen that modeled. So, I’ve had this love of story as long as I’ve had a love of dance.

But dance is a physical art form and naturally becomes limited by time. I remember a desire to write my family’s stories from a young age, but making the decision to focus on dance in my youth, with the idea I could work on writing “later.” As I’ve gotten older and dance has taken a different place in my life, I’m grateful to have writing as a creative outlet.

ARK: The ending of “It All Happens at a McDonald’s” cuts off after the narrator asks to give money to the man in the drive-through. Why choose to end the piece there instead of after she approaches him?

MZ: If I ended after the narrator interacted with the man, it felt a little too tidy for me—like the completed interaction would signal some sort of resolution. Because the struggle of the narrator and her family, of that man by the drive-thru, of the people of our country (because I think of this piece—situated in McDonald’s—as a snapshot of many), are ongoing and I didn’t want things to feel solved by a single gesture.

ARK: In addition to setting, what themes inspire your writing?

MZ: Family, always family. I am continually moved by the beauty and tragedy and humor of my family. Their dynamics and complexities are an endless source of inspiration for my writing.

ARK: Most of your works are creative nonfiction essays. Do you also write in other genres?

MZ: At this time, I only write creative nonfiction. But in the future, I’m interested to try fiction or autofiction. There are strands of people or events in my life that I’m fascinated by and would like to explore through writing, but I don’t know enough of the historical facts to render them as nonfiction.  

ARK: In addition to your work with Arkana, are there any other publications or projects you are excited about? What are you working on now?

MZ: For the last few months, I’ve been working on some flash pieces, trying to gain a better understanding of the form. I love flash, how authors take a seed of a moment or a thought and spin it into something vast and profound.

ARK: Thank you for sharing with us!

Read “It All Happens at a McDonald’s” here!

Melissent Zumwalt is an artist, advocate and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has appeared in the Whisk(e)y Tit JournalFull Grown PeopleAtticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Longridge Review and elsewhere. Read more at:

Contributor Spotlights

Contributor Spotlight: Annie Lyall Slaughter

In the Spring of 2022, Arkana Editors chatted with writer Annie Lyall Slaughter. Her creative nonfiction piece, “Putting the Fear Behind” is featured in Arkana’s 11th Issue as the Editor’s Choice Award winner.

Arkana: Tell us about your intentional decision to begin your piece with a disclaimer. Relatedly, do you make it a consistent practice to change the names of your characters, especially when threatening or disrupting topics are being explored? Or is this your general practice when writing creative nonfiction, as a genre?

Annie Lyall Slaughter: When writing creative nonfiction, I typically try to keep all the information in my stories as close to the truth as possible, including the names of my characters. That said, for this particular piece, I didn’t ask the family’s permission to write the piece and wanted to respect their confidentiality, given the fact that they arrived to New York on refugee visas. Although they are no longer my clients (I have since left the resettlement agency), I felt it would’ve been a breach of trust to include their names in this story without their explicit permission. Not to mention, I wanted to keep them safe.

ARK: When you look back on the situation you were in, would you have been able to keep hold of hope if Ayesha and Sharif hadn’t reacted the way they did?

ALS: A loaded question! Ayesha and Sharif went on to secure an apartment in Little Pakistan largely on their own, thanks to the help of their family friends in the area. I couldn’t have done it without them. Although I went on to support countless families throughout nearly two years in the role, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t an everyday battle to maintain composure and hold on to hope. The exorbitant price of rentals in New York City paired with the lack of federal funding in the refugee resettlement program creates insurmountable challenges for refugees who resettle in the New York City metropolitan area. As a result, resettlement staff—required by law to help newly arrived families find a home—are left scrambling, constantly trying to patch the holes of a larger systemic issue that needs addressing.

ARK: Would you say that the situation then would be similar today or in the near future, or how do you think it has changed?

ALS: Although I am no longer working in refugee resettlement, from what I understand, little has changed. There was (and still is) a huge shortage of housing in the fall when hundreds of Afghan evacuees arrived in the city. There are some truly wonderful people and organizations doing great work to support refugees in NYC, but unfortunately, the housing market is relentless, and the cost of living has only increased here since COVID-19. On a more positive note, I’d like to acknowledge the incredible work of Ruth’s Refuge, a Brooklyn-based organization dedicated to supplying moving services and furnishings for refugee and asylee families. Thanks to their services, many newly arrived refugee families are able to save up to $1,000 in expenses towards furniture and home goods.

ARK: How did you come to realize that creative nonfiction called you and that you enjoyed writing within this genre?

ALS: I’ve always loved to journal. As a child, I would write stories when something unimaginable or exciting happened to me. (I’ve always felt a creative urge to put pen to page.) But it wasn’t until I started working at the IRC that I realized just how much material there is to write about in the immediate world around me. Now, I’m working towards a master’s in journalism, learning how to combine my own personal experiences with reporting to comment on larger social, cultural, and political trends.

ARK: In addition to your work with Arkana, are there any other publications or projects you are excited about? (What are you working on now?)

ALS: As an M.A. student in NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, I’m currently working on a long-form essay analyzing the history of naming traditions (onomastics) in the American South, through the lens of my own double name “Annie Lyall”. Actually, I’m also working on another creative nonfiction piece about my time at the International Rescue Committee… I can’t seem to get away from it!

Ark: Thank you for sharing with us and congratulations again on the Editor’s Choice Award!

Read “Putting the Fear Behind” here!

Annie Lyall Slaughter is a writer based in Manhattan. From September 2019 to March 2021, she secured twenty-one apartment units for refugee families while working for the International Rescue Committee in New York City. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism at NYU.

Editor Notes

Notes from the Editor: Issue 13 Masthead

Dear Arkana Family and Friends,

We are excited to announce the new MASTHEAD for Arkana Issue 13!

In the coming weeks, we will check in with our genre editors here on our blog to learn more about their teams. In the meantime, we are already reading your submissions, so keep sending us your best work! Just a few of our current requests include place-based nonfiction that continues to give a voice to under-represented topics or issues such as regional concerns or communities, more 10-minute plays, and flash fiction. We would also be excited to see more illustrated narratives, a photo or story album that tells an intriguing narrative. This is just a short list! There is more to come as we highlight each team.

Do you have something ready for us to read? Find out submission details on our Submit Page.

Want to see what we have published recently? Explore our current issue here or check out something from the Archive.

Want to engage with us on social media? Find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

We love sharing our enthusiasm by celebrating our artists as much as possible. We nominate our writers’ work yearly for the Pushcart Prize and for other prizes, including Best of the Net. Also, for each issue, we award an Editor’s Choice Award for Fiction and Editor’s Choice Award for Poetry.

Looking forward to another great issue!

All the best,
Kathy M. Bates
Managing Editor, Arkana Literary Journal

Arkana is an online literary journal whose mission is to seek and foster a sense of shared wonder by publishing inclusive art that asks questions, explores mystery, and works to make visible the marginalized, the overlooked, and those whose voices have been silenced.

Contributor Spotlights

Contributor Spotlight: Rosetta Marantz Cohen

Arkana Editors chatted with writer, artist, and professor, Rosetta Marantz Cohen. Her poem, “Spartan Woman” is featured in Arkana’s 11th Issue.

Featured Artwork: “Self-Portrait,” by Rosetta Marantz Cohen

Arkana: “Spartan Woman” is reminiscent of an otherworldly epic that draws you into its lyrical narrative and demands your careful attention throughout. How do you, as a poet, approach a lengthier and more detailed piece like this one? Does that approach differ from how you might write more condensed work?

Rosetta Marantz Cohen: The complexity of the subject seemed to demand I write a long poem, one that spans a woman’s entire lifespan. I wrote the poem in sections; each, initially, had its own title. Once I finished, I realized the titles weren’t necessary, that the poem told a coherent and chronological story. 

I had never written such a long poem before. I consider myself a formal poet, and those forms (sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, etc.) often dictate their own lengths. I’d thought I liked the constraints of formal poetry, but I found it very freeing to write this poem without any kind of metrical constraints. …Though I suppose that staying true to the historical sources I was using substituted one form of constraint for another.

Ark: Much of “Spartan Woman” includes references to life in Sparta. How did you approach researching for this piece? Is research a primary facet of your other work as well?

RMC: Though my reading often inspires ideas for poems, I’ve never before used such extensive primary and secondary research in composing.  During the pandemic, when I was confined to the house, I became interested in reading a lot of history, and specifically about women in the past who pushed back against their constricted lives—rule-breakers and outsiders. “Spartan Woman” grew out of some fascinating reading about this very alien culture where everything in the society was focused on war, and where women were useful only in their capacity to create more male soldiers. My favorite source was Sarah Pomeroy’s Spartan Women, which describes in great detail some of the odd practices that were considered normal in Spartan society, including infanticide and the cross-dressing of young brides.  

Building a life story from historical research was so satisfying and engrossing for me that I continued the series, writing several more lengthy poems about other “outsider” women—a medieval anchoress, a woman in Salem during the witch trials, a pioneer schoolteacher. Each of these long poems have been built on primary and secondary research and the whole process allows you to become immersed in the character you are creating so that I’ve come to feel I know them as real people. 

Ark: Where did the inspiration for the piece come from?

RMC: As a professor of Education with a focus on women’s education in the developing world, I have been teaching for many years about the lives of women struggling against social constraints, poverty, prejudice. Until this year, I had never thought to turn life stories into poems. Once I started writing about this character—this woman from Sparta in 600 BCE—I saw the links between my academic work and my poem. Her difficulties were not wholly unlike the barriers women face today in some parts of the world.

Ark:  How did you go about revising “Spartan Woman?” Is the finished piece similar to the original draft, or did the piece undergo many changes?

RMC: I knew I wanted the poem to have multiple sections, each dealing with another pivotal moment in the speaker’s life. I revised a good deal. My husband is an English professor and he is my best critic. He catches every word that is “off” and he is (almost) always right. So I do revise with the input from a trusted critic. It always amazes me how “good” a line can sound when you first write it, and how “wrong” it seems the following day.

Ark: So, what are you working on now?

RMC: Right now I am finishing a book of five long poems based on the subjects I note above—the anchoress, the pioneer teacher, the witch, and also a contemporary woman who is herself an outsider from the dominant culture. What I have found is that all these voices have become linked in surprising ways. They share a kind of visionary capacity—an ability to see themselves outside the norms and restrictions of their time and place. They also share a deep sense of loneliness. They (we) have become a kind of sisterhood of misfits.

Ark: Thank you for sharing with us!

Read “Spartan Woman” here!

Rosetta Marantz Cohen is the author of two prize-winning chapbooks of poetry, Domestic Scenes (Foothills) and The Town of Insomniacs (Finishingline), and four scholarly books. She is the Myra M. Sampson Professor of Education at Smith College.

Book Review

Book Review: A Name Among Bone by Mel Ruth

Mel Ruth is a PhD student at Georgia State University, with a focus on poetry. Mel has pieces published in Pleiades, Emerson Review, New Pages, and more. They were a Slice Literary Magazine “Bridging the Gap” Finalist, and their chapbook A Name Among Bone, was a semi-finalist in the 2020 Black River Chapbook Contest, and the winner of the 2021 Cow Creek Chapbook contest. They/them or she/her/hers. Follow them on Twitter @Mel_Ruth_.

A Name Among Bone is Mel Ruth’s first poetry collection. It won the 2021 Cow Creek Chapbook Prize held by Pittsburg State University and was published by Emerald City Press in 2022.

The heavy-weighted title is followed by an acknowledgment page containing the brief two words preface “for Nan-Nan.” Both reveal the main melody of this collection: family and lineage. The relationship with one’s grandparents can be as intimate and impactful as one’s parents. They are farther in blood distance but may be closer in family history. Ruth’s poems in this collection depict the beauty and mystery of that relationship in her family.

Figurative language is Ruth’s strong suit in this collection. Metaphors are dense and they carry symbolic meanings. 

“Running Waters” is the first poem in the book. The title is a metaphor suggesting generations passing down like water in a waterfall. Ruth starts the poem with the speaker calling her father about her confusion about the family genealogy. She describes the sound of her name as “crisp like embered / leaves littering dirt.” (4-5) Then she uses a parallel structure to show contrast: “You wanted / a son, I wanted not to be // here atop this mountain.” (5-7)

The latest generation in the family, though the youngest, represents the successful extension of blood, and gets the most attention, like a mountain top the family looks to. It also shows the speaker’s awareness of her father’s expectations of her and her stress of being the focus of the family. As Ruth continues to trace up, she adds more metaphors. “The dirt / our bed and we return” is another powerful one to show people’s final fate. By the end, Ruth brings in the shooting target image, one that she repeats several times in this collection, to symbolize her trying to find the missing puzzle of her ancestry or to decipher her family’s genealogy. 

Parallel with Ruth’s imaginative figures is her economy of words. The poem “View-Master: Revisited” is a narrative poem about the speaker’s Nan-Nan. It starts with how Nan-Nan is called, then what Nan-Nan means to the speaker’s family. In an extended metaphor, which contains 4 lines or 21 words, Ruth describes Nan-Nan’s function and contribution to the family, also how Nan-Nan’s sudden death brings trauma to them.

….. …..She was the thread
….. …..that bound us like the patchwork

….. …..of a story quilt, cut too soon, creating
….. …..chaos in the fallout. (3-6)…..

The metaphor implies the warm feeling the speaker feels for Nan-Nan, and the attention the family gets from Nan-Nan. However, Nan-Nan’s funeral has some chaotic scenes: “Shattered / glass angels, broken bloody noses, a pink / marbled coffin.” This scene is disappointing. Not what Nan-Nan asked for, and not what the speaker’s Pop-Pop wanted for her. By the end, Ruth continues to paint the scene with concise language: “Stolen knick-knacks / in the lounge, bitter / coffee, fake sugar.” (10-12) 

The last three lines are a pun, suggesting both the literal and metaphorical meanings: knick-knacks, like good memories, were stolen, and the sweet words from people at the funeral are like fake sugar, not genuine. The coffee is bitter as the loved one is gone.  In 3 lines of 8 words, Ruth draws a scene that arouses a lot of imagination and association in the reader’s mind.

Later in the collection, “Outside Your Skin You Are Narrative” is a poem that reveals both Ruth’s extraordinary storytelling skills and ability to embed strong imagery in her poetry.

The opening line draws interesting pictures in the reader’s mind, hooks them to read on, and leads them to imagine the scenes: “Cleanse everything with lavender. Your / body, your home, us.” As the reader reads on, they get to know that this is not the speaker’s voice, but Pop-pop’s memory of his mother, the speaker’s Nan-Nan. Then Ruth sketches vivid, dynamic pictures with sensual five senses: 

….. …..long

….. … in salt scented breezes
….. …..engulfing carnivals and oceans,

….. …..or whipping out of half open
….. … in a rusted station?
….. …..wagon, rolling down highways

….. … Tennessee. (3-9)

The sight of “long hair,” the smell of “scented breezes,” and the contrast of hair flying in the open windows against a “rusted station wagon” together paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Each word is imaginative and concrete. They reflect the difference between reality and dream. “You / believed in angels, but / your ancestors called them ghosts” (Ruth 10-12) suggests the gaps between family generations or different interpretations of life dreams. By the end, Ruth keeps painting rich and beautiful pictures in the carnival:

….. …..of Ferris Wheels and merry-
….. …..go-rounds in neon

….. …..lights, chasing Elvis, chasing
….. …..angels. Only part of
….. …..this was. (14-18)

The ending adds multiple layers of meaning to the poem. From concrete, fancy images of “Ferris Wheels and merry-go-rounds in neon lights” to slowly move to more symbolic images like “chasing Elvis” and his song in Tennessee, then to move to what the poet is doing now – her pursuit of art, poetry. This poem covers a long time and a broad space to arouse the reader’s imagination. 

The last poem in the collection “Memoir: A Poem” adds the memoir element to poetry. Its last line provides the title for this collection, and it is also a lyric poem that reflects Ruth’s strength in using images to stir the reader’s emotions. It’s another poem for Nan-Nan. 

The open line “I read you gone” composes a one-line stanza. It sets the grave tone for the poem. The large amount of white space allows the reader to digest the heavy topic. Instead of telling the reader her helpless and sad feeling, Ruth depicts it in imagery:

….. …..Like baby bunny rescued
….. ………. ………. ………. ………. …….from dog’s crushing grip

….. …..only to be collected for death. (3-4)

The image hits the reader with pain and grief. Then Ruth draws a lighter, livelier picture following this grim topic: “I // want to see galaxies on my / nails, feel civilizations on / my palms.” This shows the contrast between reality and dreams. The ending is another picture Ruth composes to embody the theme of the poem, also the theme of the book:

….. ………. ………. ………. …I need
….. ………. ………. ………. ………. ….to dance. To be 

….. …..the solid center of bright
….. ………. ………. ………. ………. ….pink target. To count

….. …..each grain of rice. To have
….. ………. ………. ………. …found a name among bone. (9-14)

Even with Nan-Nan’s passing away, Ruth understands she cannot be broken. She needs to stay calm and collected, for her ancestors, and also for her dream. She needs to put herself together to be the solid center of a target, counting the memories like counting the grains of rice. She has Nan-Nan in her blood and bone and will never forget her. The repeating shooting or target images in the first and the last poems echo, both reflecting the speaker’s goal: to hit the target right. 

A Name Among Bone reflects Mel Ruth’s free and mature use of the different poetic craft elements in her work. Her figurative language, natural talent with imagery, and storytelling ability contribute to making this collection as strong as the title suggests, meanwhile generating an everlasting effect on the reader’s mind.

Discover more about Mel and her work here!

Zhihua Wang is a poetry candidate in the Arkansas Writers’ MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas. She worked as the Managing Editor of Arkana from 2019-2020. Her recent work is shown/forthcoming in Aji Magazine, Last Leaves, San Pedro River Review, Nurture, The Curator, Eunoia Review, Down in the Dirt, and Writers Resist. She is working on her first poetry collection: Faraway Hometown


Interview: Megan Neville

Recently, Arkana‘s managing editor Kathy M. Bates sat down with writer and educator Megan Neville to discuss her writing and poetic forms and themes at work in her latest poetry collection, The Fallow.

Transcribed by Melanie A. Wilson.

Kathy M. Bates: We are happy to share in the excitement of your first full-length poetry collection The Fallow. Teaching, writing, contests, traditional and non-traditional paths, tell us a little about your writing journey.

Megan Neville: Writing is something I have done my entire life. I know a lot of people say that, but it really is. I put together little books when I was a kid, when I could barely write words. I did a zine when I was 13, 14, 15-years-old. So, writing has been something that I have always done and it has always been intrinsically linked with teaching. When I really started to take writing seriously, in my adult life, I have to give a lot of credit to the National Writing Project at Kent State University. NWP is an organization that operates on the philosophy that K-12 teachers should be writers themselves–if we are going to teach writing, we need to write. So, I did that in 2007 and that just reinvigorated my passion for writing. That’s when I started to really see myself as a writer again. That’s where the journey to where I am now was rekindled.

KMB: At what point during the writing and organization of The Fallow did you decide on the title? Fallow is in essence remains that are left to restore over time. Tell me a little more about the title and deeper connection to thematic elements within the collection.

MN: Yeah, that’s huge. You know, it was originally going to be “Our Lady of Impermanence”, which is the title of one of the poems. But then I realized that the poet, Traci Brimhall has a book with a very similar title and I obviously didn’t want to be too similar to someone else’s book. I was looking around at other things in the book trying to figure out what was kind of a unifying theme. And the whole idea of fertility is huge in this book, and the intentional non-use of fertility. My poems touch a bit on the concept of motherhood and mothering, and it’s very much a book about the fact that I’m not a mother, I don’t have children and I don’t want to have children. And just kind of exploring maternal instinct and things like that in the context of not being or wanting to be an actual mother. 

I also think about it from an agricultural standpoint, because I am in Ohio so that is something that once I get an hour outside of the city I live in, is a big thing. You know, leaving a field fallow is purposeful, right? It’s so that things can regenerate and restore nutrients and kind of nurture the land itself, as opposed to just always spawning things from the land. So, you know, when you first hear the definition of the word fallow, it might seem like something negative like, oh, that’s sad. It’s not bearing anything, but then when you think of the purpose of it, I like to think of that as a metaphor for why I have chosen not to be a mother.

KMB: Let’s talk a bit about how form mirrors content but more potentially exposes context. Namely in “Rotational Fall,” there are 3 stanzas parted by pages as well as appearance. How are your choices informing the underlying story you hope to relay?

MN: I love this because I love to play with form. And I love any way to enhance content. So, when I play around with form, like for “Rotational Fall,” I’m basically trying to let the reader into how my brain is working, like how I’m grouping thoughts together or how different stages of the poem were created and how they play off of each other. With “Rotational Fall”, you have to physically rotate the book while you’re reading it. 

That poem was based on a story I heard on NPR about, forgive me, I forget her name, but an actual competitive equestrian rider who died after a rotational fall a few years ago. Just hearing that story sent me tumbling. I used to ride horses when I was a kid, and just thinking how someone could die in such a tragic way, doing something that I did for fun, for recreation. It really threw me for a loop. So just that whole circle and cycle and rotation and the fact that the whole rest of the book is about cycles of violence, cycles of matrilineal turnover and things like that. It felt like it would fit to make people actually turn the book around a few times when they’re reading.

KMB:  There are many other poems that use white space, dropped lines, and intentional location. Do you often see these elements in the first draft, or do they come into play upon revision and reflection?

MN: A lot of times when I write a poem, I’ll write it out exactly as it looks in my mind, with pauses, things like that, like visual caesuras and dropped lines, and things like that. It will just come out right away. But then sometimes when I’m playing around with a poem, and I’m not sure exactly how it should be, I actually just put it all together as one block of prose. And then I play around with different ways of using indentation and lineation and things like that.

There are a couple of poems in this book that were originally published differently. Like “Stand Her Ground” is one, for instance. When that originally appeared in the Longleaf Review, it looked very different than it looks now. The other one that I’m thinking of is “Searching Plan B Availability in Utah” which originally was a prose poem. So I think some of them have evolved over time as they live in my mind and they just take up more space, sometimes they need to expand, and I like using blank space in poems in general because they often feel like you need that reflective space somewhere. 

And then some of it also has to do with whether it’s a poem I imagined myself reading aloud, in front of an audience, versus if it’s a poem that I picture people reading with their eyes on a page. 

I tend to be a very extroverted introvert, at times; I love being around people, but then they exhaust me and I need time to myself. So if I’m in a phase where I’ve been very extroverted, I find that I tend to write a lot of poems that are more traditional looking because I’m going to envision myself reading them in front of an audience. But then when I’m more in my little hidey-hole, I tend to write poems with a lot of visual aspects.

KMB: As a follow-up, considering poem evolution, many writers feel like their work is never really finished. What are your thoughts about that? How do you know when you are finally ready to let go of a piece?

MN: There have been a handful that I’ve let go of, but the vast majority I see as constant works in progress. When a poem is published somewhere I feel like that’s just a checkpoint. That’s where the poem is at that time. It’s like a photograph where it’s like, that’s how this person looks at this moment in their life, but they’re not going to look like that forever. As a teacher of writing for high school, I do a lot of encouraging my kids to know that your work is never fully done. You just write drafts of it. And that’s very hard for them to internalize because they want to know exactly what something’s supposed to look like. And that’s why as a writer, I like poetry because I feel like it can evolve and I feel like all the poems that I have right now, are in a lot of ways in conversation with older poems that I’ve written. So, I feel like every poem that I write is kind of like a little branch, like an offshoot of other things that I’ve written, and little tendrils can come off of them as they constantly evolve.

KMB: What about the process of choosing the order for your poems?

MN: It’s messy and I love it. That’s honestly one of my favorite parts of putting together The Fallow. I print everything out, as I’m sure many writers do, and I spread everything out on the floor. My apartment is not big enough, and plus the cat tries to help, so sometimes I’ll go someplace else where there’s a lot of floor space or table space. And I just spread out every single poem that I’m thinking of putting in a manuscript and I go through and I put little like tags on them, like what are the themes in the poem or the images in the poem and then I start grouping them together. And then once I have groups, I start to tease them out. Then I expand because I don’t want all of the poems with the same theme to be together. I want them to be spread out. So that instead of there being like a clump of poems about one theme and then a clump of poems about another theme, I like to have everything spread out a bit, so that just when you think you’re out of one theme, as a reader, you get drawn back into it again. So there’s this sort of spiraling out or going forward and back and forward and back and forward and back. So that’s how I chose what order they went in. 

And then with the two sections, I tried a lot of different ways of doing this. I really wanted the first section to be more about origins and then the second section more about consequences.

KMB: You mention groups and themes, some of those conversations are more difficult than others. Which was the hardest poem to write?

MN: I think one of the hardest ones, I wrote in 2019 in a workshop I was in with Ada Limón. It was the one about “Searching for Plan B availability in Utah because no this is not what you think.” I was writing it in this sort of scathing and angry mood, and I realized the jealousy and suspicion invoked in that poem would cause more of that. And so, that was a poem that kind of ate itself as I wrote it. 

And I love that poem. It’s really short and really simple, but that was the hardest one to write because it involves so many things that I wanted to say that I knew I would be in trouble for saying. And as a K-12 teacher, that’s something I’ve struggled with a lot as a writer. Because for some reason, the teaching profession in the United States, I’m honestly not sure if it’s like this in the rest of the world, but teachers here are sort of infantilized. We’re expected to be non-sexual beings and we’re expected to be, you know, prim and proper all the time. I’ve been in education for 18 years but I’m a grown-ass woman, you know, so I have the same thoughts and issues and desires and experiences that any other 41-year-old woman has. 

So writing several of the poems in this book, I realized I was taking a risk by putting them out into the world. But I realized that I was taking more of a risk by keeping them inside, so I went ahead and wrote them. 

KMB: Looking back, is there anything you would have taken away or added?

MN: You know, there’s the one poem I wish I would have followed a little bit further with is “Body of Knowledge.” It goes as far as celebrating the clitoris, yet there’s so much more to sexuality than just the pleasure centers. I sometimes wish I would have expanded on that one a little bit more. Sometimes I feel like I was a little bit too safe with that one. 

One of the ways that I thought about that poem and kind of reconciled putting it in the, despite wishing I’d had gone further with it, is that the fact that it doesn’t interrogate quite as much as I would like it to interrogate. But I think that represents a vulnerability, searching for pleasure and trying to understand my own capacity for pleasure despite not being taught that such a thing exists. I think that kind of leaves open, like, hey, there’s more to learn. I like how that gets represented in the poem. 

KMB: Can you isolate a favorite poem from this collection? Why?

MN: I’m gonna have to say they’re all my babies, I love them all. But I’ll go with “Elegy with Apologies to Leon Jakobovits James,” because that one is my 2020 poem. It’s the most recently-written poem that made it into the book. 

It’s my locked-down, teaching remotely, trying to live, reflective covid-era poem. And I mean, a lot of people wrote 2020 poems. I think we all wrote some 2020 poems. This one covers everything starting with my father’s death at the end of 2019, right before the pandemic started, and goes both forward and backward in time. I was still grieving for him when the whole pandemic started, and the pandemic has been just a years-long ball of grief upon grief upon grief.  The structure of the poem is based on the concept of semantic satiation, which is when you say a word over and over again until it just doesn’t sound like that word anymore. It doesn’t have any meaning anymore. So the idea was, maybe if I talked enough about all the grief that I was experiencing, that it would go away. So, it was very cathartic for me to write and I love the way it turned out. 

KMB: With the excitement of a new release, we know the journey continues. What are you working on now?

MN: It’s really interesting because in my own writing process, I go through phases where I write and write and write and I can’t stop writing. Then I go through phases where I don’t write quite as much. Right now I have not written a poem in about five months. But I have a lot of them brewing.

I’m working on some creative nonfiction, though. Right now I’m developing an essay about the intersection between teaching, watching the TV show Euphoria, and texting like a mom–which is something my teenage students say is a thing. That essay is what I’m working on right now. I do, like I said, also have a few poems brewing. I tend to write poems in chunks. I just get a word or a phrase or concept or an image stuck in my mind and I just jot it down, and then I ignore it for months until I have many of those and I start to look at how we put them all together. So I’m in the very nascent phases of writing some poems and then working on a couple of essays, as well. 

KMB: Well, it is definitely exciting when it all comes together, and we hope to see more soon!. Thank you so much for speaking with us!

Discover more about Megan and her work here!

Megan Neville (she/her) is a writer and educator based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch, Pleiades,, Wildness, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2019 Wick Poetry Center Contest for Peace & Transformation and has been a finalist or semifinalist for the Write Bloody Book Contest, the Akron Poetry Prize, the Frost Place Chapbook Contest, the Tupelo Press Sunken Garden Chapbook Contest, the YesYes Books 2020 Open Reading Period, and others. In 2021 received a Best of the Net nomination and two nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Megan is also an editorial assistant for Split Lip Magazine. Find her on Twitter @MegNev.