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June 22, 2015 / nicolespokane

An Interview with Natalie Young

salt lake

by Nick Avery

Natalie Young is a founding editor and graphic designer for the poetry magazine Sugar House Review. She received her BFA in art and an MFA in creative writing. Natalie works as an art director for an ad agency based out of Salt Lake City. Her poetry has been published in Rattle, Los Angeles Times, South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Green Mountains Review, in Rock & Sling 9.2and elsewhere. I recently reached out to Natalie over email.

Nick Avery: Natalie, thank you so much, again, for agreeing to do this interview. I first encountered your work while I was laying out issue 9.2 of Rock & Sling and absolutely loved how your Monster poems signified a complex and imagined world. They almost seem to fall within the fantastic subgenre. I was wondering if we could start out by talking about the Monster poems. What was the impetus behind these poems? Why conceptualize this myth to delve into the larger concepts—as you detailed in your contributor’s note—of faith, environment, history, and religion?

Natalie Young: I do have a propensity toward fantastical and speculative fiction. So it will come as no surprise that I’m a fan of The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, super heroes, fairytales, etc. The initial concept of the monster came from the graphic novel The Lagoon by Lilli Carré, given to me by a friend. I loved the illustrations and the haunting idea of the lake monster, but I finished the book and wanted more information about the monster. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Thus, my monster of the Great Salt Lake was born.

This is the first series of poems I’ve written. In the beginning, it just seemed like a good exercise to establish a setting and characters and see what would happen.  I didn’t intend to write so many poems about the monster, nor the series as a whole, but they just kept coming. This series has allowed me to establish a world and characters based in both reality and fantasy. The setting creates the time and space to delve into the themes you mention above. These themes have always been a part of my poetry, but somehow, they are less invasive when explored through this fictional world. Which is what myths do, right? They convey big ideas through a story, rather than a sermon.

NA: Let’s continue with the Monster poems for a moment. How do you see place and space functioning within this trilogy? I mean, because on some level the Monster is an alien, an orphaned creature that occupies a given environment. At the same time, I can’t help but feel the loneliness the Monster experiences in these poems. Does a division exist, then, between the Monster and place?

NY: It was a conscious choice to keep the poems almost exclusively set in Utah. This limited the space my characters inhabited, and it was a space I am both familiar with and connected to, having lived in Utah my whole life. The monster’s space is even more contained, living solely in the Great Salt Lake. Having a limited and known landscape makes it easier to establish the fantastical elements—like aliens living on earth and a lake monster that’s been around for centuries—while at the same time being able to deal with the realities of Utah’s culture, history and environment.

The monster is definitely lonely. He’s the only one left of his kind and has lived through vast amounts of time. You hit it spot on when you say he is an alien—not a space alien, but an alien in his own home, which is a sure division in space, place, and identity. His home is shrinking, the lake just keeps getting smaller, while at the same time, human civilization keeps expanding and he’s in the middle of it, but not a part of it.

NA: In “What She Misses About Being Mormon,” you write about the comfort that comes from community, rituals, and certainty. Yet, the subject of the poem acknowledges that hymns are what she yearns for after leaving the church. Why hymns? Is there a connection to be made with this type of song and poetry, or is this a slight overreach on my part?

NY: It’s kind of a bizarre thing, right? There are a number of amazing things a person can get from organized religion, but this character misses singing hymns the most? She’s found new rituals, new community, maybe given up on certainty, but she can’t replicate the experience or feeling of singing with an entire congregation. It’s a combination of the familiarity of notes and words sung again and again over the years and making a collective noise.

Hymns definitely have a close link to poetry. Several commonly sung Mormon hymns were written by Eliza R. Snow, (one of Brigham Young’s wives), who was a poet.

NA: Ok, last question about the Monster poems. In “Pretending to be interviewed” you utilize the structure of an interview—sort of like what we’re doing now, oddly enough—to explore the Monster’s inner thoughts. Why create this simulated dialogue that occurs between the Monster and, presumably, the Monster? Additionally, from a composition standpoint how did the writing and formatting of this poem differ from your other Monster poems?

NY: I wasn’t sure the format would work, but I liked the humor and absurdity of it, as well as what it could convey about the monster. How lonely or bored does one have to be to conduct an interview with one’s self, and then end the interview because it’s too emotional?

None of the other monster poems have any first-person narrative. In fact, none of the other poems in the series do either. So, while it’s absurd in concept, it allowed me to write directly from the monster, to give the monster an actual voice. The questions are written pretty cut and dry without much poetic language, split up by line breaks. The monster’s answers start out very short and reveal more as the interview moves along.

NA: I’d like to move from here to questions about writing as a career. At Whitworth University, there’s a huge push for students to find their vocation and calling. Do you see poetry as your profession at this point in your life? For that matter, what do you think a career poet looks like in 2015? I guess what I’m really trying to get at is this: What do you see is the role—if there is one—of the poet and do you conform to this position?

NY: Robert Frost said, “To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” I would guess most poets would agree, perhaps in large part because it’s so hard to make a living as a poet. I got a BFA in art and my day job is graphic design. I’ve always loved visual art, but it’s my profession now; poetry has become more of my passion. I went back to school to get an MFA in poetry, and it was what I call a “selfish degree.” I did it because I wanted to get better at reading and writing poetry, not because I wanted to use it as a career path. I realize I’m in the minority of people who are “serious” about writing poetry. In recent history, the typical path for someone who wants to be a career poet is to teach poetry and/or related studies, usually at the university level, and then, theoretically, have time and resources to write. But with a saturated market of talented, educated poets and most of the new positions now being adjunct—with no benefits and low pay—I think something’s going to have to change. There’s no reason a poet should feel like he/she needs to be so intimately tied to academia. There are other ways to create and be a part of a poetic community.

I don’t know if I subscribe to any certain role for the poet. Some people say it’s to speak the truth, to declare it to the world, and certainly, I acknowledge that poets have risked much and played an integral part in certain histories, and that shouldn’t be downplayed. I do believe that poetry can be an amazing tool for healing and change, both for the writer and the reader.

NA: Why did you choose Rock & Sling for these particular poems? What other publications do you frequent—either for reading or for submitting your own work?

NY: I was first exposed to Rock & Sling when I met Thom Caraway at AWP and we set up an ad trade for our magazines. I was immediately taken by how beautiful the journal is, both design- and content-wise. I felt like this batch of poems fit into Rock & Sling’s aesthetic of faith.

There are too many publications that I admire to list here, but a few include: burntdistrict, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Tampa Review, Jubilat, Green Mountains Review, South Dakota Review and Smartish Pace.

NA: This issue was interesting for our staffers because we received a number of submissions concerning Utah and Mormonism. At one point we started to joke that 9.2 would be known as the “Mormon issue.” Two weeks ago I mentioned to one of our editors that I’d scored an interview with one of the issue’s Mormon poets, a comment she was kind enough to admonish me for—considering that there is a lot more to a person’s poetry than a particular tradition or religion. I was wondering if you could comment on this idea, that is the concept of what makes up a person’s poems. Do you think that poetry is forged by those conversations we have about things like whether or not someone’s Mormon or do they stem from universal ideas?

NY: I don’t consider myself a Mormon poet, but I can’t deny that my poetry is influenced by my experience and identity of being raised Mormon, both as part of the religion and the culture. I think poetry is forged by the culmination of experiences in a poet’s life, including religion and universal ideas.

Sugar House Review just celebrated its five-year anniversary. In those five years of reading many, many submissions, I’ve seen an incredible universality in what people write—for better or worse. Every community seems to have a current flowing through it that individuals tap into consciously and subconsciously.

NA: This is a question I’ve always wanted to ask our Rock & Sling contributors, since I, myself, have spent such a long time trying to navigate the subtle line that exists between the two: Where do you think the rift—assuming there is one—liess between faith and religion? More importantly, how do you see life operating within their structures?

NY: I think that every religion requires faith, but faith doesn’t need religion. Faith and religion can be a beautiful combination and provide things we mentioned earlier—answers, community, ritual—but I don’t trust blind faith. There have been too many tragedies throughout history spurred by blind, absolute faith. Faith seems stronger when it works through some doubt and allows for others’ faith.

May Swenson, who also grew up Mormon in Utah, said that poetry replaced religion in her life. That is how I feel as well.

NA: Where do you find the motivation to write? Where do you start when you get an idea for a poem? At what point do you recognize a poem for what it is—either good or bad? Ok, so that was more than one final question, but if you could indulge me, I’d appreciate it.

NY: My motivation to write comes from my love of words, the need to write as a form of therapy, spirituality, and accomplishment, and it’s become a habit. I feel off-center and guilty when I don’t write for a while. I get inspiration from reading, not just poetry, but all kinds of books and magazines, weird news stories, other art forms and just daily life.

In the last few years, I almost always start a poem by handwriting a really rough draft in a notebook. I leave it for a while, let us both have some space, and come back to it a few days or weeks later and sort of edit on top of that draft—crossing things out, writing new things in, drawing arrows to move lines and words around. The next step is typing it up on the computer, but I don’t do that unless I have a fair idea of what I want it to be. So I guess it’s between paper and screen where I usually recognize my poem.


Nick Avery is a senior (’16) at Whitworth University where he studies English literature and writing. He is the assistant managing editor of Rock & Sling, a literary journal housed at Whitworth, and the poetry editor of Script, Whitworth’s student-run, undergraduate literary journal. When he isn’t frantically running around the English Department, Nick can be found reading David Foster Wallace or writing creative nonfiction. Nick plans to attend graduate school once he completes his B.A. at Whitworth.

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June 11, 2015 / nicolespokane

Filling the Cracks with Gold


by Polly Hollar Pauley

I recently read that Japanese ceramic artists think that an item that has suffered damage becomes more beautiful, and that when an item is cracked they will fill in the cracks with gold.

This evening we went to church for a hayride, one of the many advantages of an uber-rural congregation. I hadn’t been on a church hayride since before we had children, and today we snaked up the hill past the cemetery where my mother’s grave is, curved into the vast cornfield and continued to where the corn stops and the clearing begins.

At the clearing, under a low and overcast sky, I suddenly wasn’t hearing what anyone else said.  I saw myself as a child, hiking the field with my mother and sister, in the snow, hunting down our Christmas tree.  I saw us riding in the back of my father’s pickup truck, bouncing along the edge of the pasture where the Holstein grazed. And as we continued on the ride, I realized we were about to enter the woods.

Years ago I was a child who lived on the edge of those woods.  Some pretty mornings we walked to church this long, back way.  Our ancient house had its back to the highway and faced, instead, the old road in the woods–the road that twisted and curved up, up, up to the pasture and the cornfield and the church.

I had not been in those woods since I was little.  Time and space twisted. My husband commented that “this was a long way to walk to church!” but I could barely hear anyone.  I saw myself walking that road.

As the house came into view I couldn’t hear or think properly.

* * *

Who is the ghost?  Was it the little girl who looked out of the north bedroom windows?  Was it the child who would sit and watch the trains as they crossed the valley? I thought of that girl, of her hurts and fears and hopes. I thought of her sitting at the kitchen window in the dark months, waiting for mom to return home from work.  Happy to see those headlights coming down the gravel driveway.  I thought of her practicing piano at the old Stieff, roller skating over the freshly-waxed floors, fading into herself one vicious winter.

I thought of the secrets she left buried in the house when we moved–letters in a little closet. Things she thought she could leave.

Or am I the ghost?  In the recesses of that girl’s mind, did she ever think that in twenty-five years she would suddenly be face-to-face with her adult self, bumping along on the back of a haywagon with her arms around her son?  Did she stand back there now, puzzling over a fleeting glimpse of a little daughter with hair the color of hay, curling in the evening drizzle, wrapped inside her daddy’s arm?

When I think of that house on the side of the mountain, I see the devotion my mother gave to us, and the love my father had for us, and I see the cracks that split me, that kept me split, for years.

And what I know of God is this: He fills the cracks with gold and He does it in a way I can never, ever understand or predict. Because the ghost of that girl could not comprehend the woman who passed by the house tonight.  She would feel the damage and the history and the cracks that were already splintering her. But somewhere in between the stacks of hay and the bare November trees, I hope she also saw a glimpse of the gold.

Polly Hollar Pauley’s poetry has been published in The Hollins CriticCider Press Review, Artemis, and The Allegheny Review.  She lives in the Appalachian Mountains with her husband and children. 

Photo credit: Linvilla Orchards (


May 22, 2015 / nicolespokane

An Interview with R&S 9.2 Cover Artist David Ruhlman

9 2 email promo

by Holli Steinmetz

David Ruhlman has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art History from the University of Utah. His work has been featured in over 20 exhibitions from 2008-2015 and was used in the 9.2 Fall issue of Rock & Sling as both cover and content art. David’s gallery features paintings, handmade books, collaborations and fascinating newspaper clippings.

Holli Steinmetz: In the pieces we used for Rock & Sling 9.2 issue, there are many images of Jesus Christ and lambs. Do you have a religious background that encourages these paintings, or is it more of a fascination with these figures?

David Ruhlman: I would say that there is a deep fascination with religious symbols and figures. In college I took a class called “Myth, Magic, and Religion,” which I loved, and I think those three words encapsulate much of my work and interests. Religious symbols and images hold so much power and sway that as an artist I wanted to try and transform them.

HS: What was your inspiration behind the Cat/astrophe series?

DR: It is quite an old series. It started after viewing a photo exhibit documenting the children of the Chernobyl disaster. It was horrifying and incredibly moving. The images stuck with me. I also found some old children’s chalkboards at a thrift shop. I had a fantastic little cat named Suzy and one day an image of a sad injured cat came to me. So I decided to do a series of injured cats based loosely on the disaster. I haven’t thought about those paintings in a while but they each still hold a little piece of my heart.

HS: From looking through your gallery, I’ve noticed a consistent use of newspaper clippings. What was your intention behind pairing, for example, the felt pictures and the Russian newspaper in “Everything has a shape (part 1)”? Or the Russian newspaper and the brighter geometric pictures in “Rabbit sees radar”?

DR: I have always been fascinated by art that is difficult to date or place in time. Regarding the Russian newspapers, aesthetically I find them quite beautiful. For me there is a timeless vernacular quality to the newspaper and a slightly unnerving presence.   he painting “Everything has a shape (part 1)” came about after finding a packet of felt pictures at a thrift store that were used for Sunday school lessons. I liked the idea of placing these images in acts of lasciviousness and danger.  The “rabbit sees radar” came after covering a board with book pages and burying it for the winter. After unburying it I wanted to use geometric shapes instead of my usual narrative images.

HS: Some of your inspiration comes from subject matter that could be considered disturbing/gruesome (specifically the Found (1931-1946) series). What kind of message do you wish to portray using/creating “dark” subjects/images?

DR: I am drawn to the transformation of an object. Also rather than gruesome I would replace it with having a dark humor. The Found (1931-1946) series were a packet of newspaper clippings that I found at a thrift store.  I think looking at many of those clippings you cannot help but chuckle at some of the stories.  It reminds me of a quote of Jean Dubuffet: “Art should always make people laugh a little and frighten them a little. Anything but bore them. Art has no right to be boring.”

I paint the things that interest me and that I would want hung up in my house. Many of them are little stories that I am fascinated by or ideas that I want to develop. This world is a strange and endlessly compelling place that I try and understand and experience through my art.

HS: I was looking through your gallery of handmade books and was fascinated by both “A life leading towards disappearance/ Die Frau, Die War” and “Are we not ghosts confined.” Each book has such a unique style but I find them both equally haunting in a way. What was your intention/inspiration behind these books?

DR: The whole book series came about after a friend gave me the front and back cover of a book that he thought I would like.  I quickly and punched some holes in it and put a few pages in.  I found that I loved making them and over 2-3 years made around 45 handmade books with many of the books having 20-30 pages of art.  I hadn’t taken art classes and used these books to teach myself how to draw, collage, and finally paint.

I would find a old book, take out the existing pages and sew in my own.  I would usually start with a title or an idea and work tirelessly to finish it. I think they played a huge part in my painting style and aesthetic. They are slightly hermetic, filled with personal symbols and mythologies.

The “A life leading towards disappearance/ Die Frau, Die War” was created using dirt, oil pastel and pencil.  As the title suggests it was created after an especially difficult event. On the other end, “Are we not ghosts confined” was my last book of the 45 that I created (I have gone back in recent years to make a few new ones.) I bought some crappy gouache and thought I would try my hand at painting. I didn’t feel it went too badly so I then thought I would paint on wood panels that I could put up on my wall.  So that was the last book before I started trying my hand at painting.

HS: What is it about this specific medium that draws you?

DR: I taught myself how to paint using gouache, so it is familiar to me. I love the matte quality of gouache and the vibrancy of the colors. Most of the acrylic that I have seen or used has a glossy finish that I hated. Gouache is pretty difficult to use because it is water based, so if it gets wet even years later, it reactivates it and can ruin the painting. I wouldn’t mind finding better quality acrylic but so far gouache works great.

HS: Do you keep some kind of running list/notebook/journal of ideas/inspirations for future art?

DR: I sure do. I have a sketchbook that I use and also usually have paper and pen in the car and beside the bed. The sketches are usually very rudimentary. I usually work things out as I paint. I have lists of titles that I like and I usually have a painting or two planned after the current one I am working on. I have Paul Klee’s quote in my studio that states “every day a line,” so I always try and get in and work out current/future paintings.

Holli Steinmetz is a junior English Major on the Writing track at Whitworth University. She is the Assistant Fiction Editor for Rock & Sling. Outside of school Holli is an aspiring artist with interests in 2D art as well as sculpting.


May 6, 2015 / nicolespokane

Writer’s Ink: The Light Can Get In

Jackie Wallace writers ink

by Jackie Wallace

When I was seventeen, I read a book called Paper Towns, by John Green. You may have heard of it due to the upcoming release of its movie adaptation. More on that later.

The book tells the story of a teenage boy who idolizes the girl next door. The girl disappears, leading the boy on a journey to find her. By searching for this girl, he realizes that he has dehumanized her by idolizing her. To refuse to acknowledge weakness and imperfections is to deny that person’s humanity. It’s a story about empathy, and brokenness, and valuing our weaknesses and imperfections.

I was suffering a nervous breakdown the first time I read this book. I felt broken, and isolated, and hid my overwhelming anxiety as thoroughly as I could. The more I fell apart, the more desperate I was to appear put together. My weakness terrified me. I was paralyzed by the fear that someone would eventually realize that I was broken. I read Paper Towns, and connected with the undercurrent of isolation that flowed through this girl, who everyone loved but nobody knew. The characters blossomed from the page as their own brokenness came to light, and I felt dazed by the beauty.

Near the end of the book, there is a passage that describes how people start out as watertight vessels. Then others hurt us or leave us or bad things happen to us, and the vessel starts to crack. And maybe the vessel will never be repaired, and we’ll always be damaged, but it’s not until we break open that we can see into each other and understand each other. My favorite line of the book is, “The light can get in, the light can get out.” I originally planned to get a tattoo of the quote.

A couple of years passed, and I went to college. I had another breakdown. My brokenness still terrified me, but it was the concept of weakness and imperfection as necessary for human connection that helped me recover. The book is still important to me, but I began to value the ideas behind it more than the book itself, and so decided not to get a quote as a tattoo.

I’ve reread Paper Towns half a dozen times. I have to avoid most media coverage about the movie adaptation, because I get my feelings hurt far too easily by others’ opinions about the book. I don’t usually feel protective of the books I love; I’m fine with film adaptations, and fine with others having whatever opinions they please about the story. But this is my book. I am willing to act selfishly to protect this story. I have high hopes for the film adaptation. I also know I will have to tune out the voices of every movie critic and twelve-year-old with an internet connection if I want to survive the ordeal.

I can passionately defend the value and beauty of imperfections and weakness, but the truth is that I still haven’t internalized it. I am still ashamed of my brokenness, of all these cracks in this vessel. But now I understand why I need them. We connect when we recognize vulnerability in another, and say, “me, too.” Our brokenness is not only necessary, but so incredibly valuable. It lets light in, and lets it out. And so I made a promise. I promised to always choose my true self. I choose the self with the cracks and scars and weaknesses. I won’t reject, hide, or wish myself away anymore.

There needed to be a sacrament to seal the vow I was making. I decided to get a tattoo showing the light that comes from the crack in the vessel. I liked how permanent it was, and that it would always be with me; I can’t exactly go back on my promise now, can I? When I’m overcome by feelings of vulnerability and anxiety, I imagine the light pouring from my shoulder, flowing in and out with my breath, like the tide. The light comes in. The light goes out.

Jackie Wallace graduated from Whitworth with a B.A. in Psychology in 2014. She spends her days pretending to be a writer while actually binge-watching kitschy television shows. Her favorite people are her pet rats and young nephews. Her blog can be found here.

April 27, 2015 / nicolespokane

An Interview with R&S Contributor Ashley Roach-Freiman


by Rebekah Bresee

Ashley Roach-Freiman wrote “Red Bird Elegy” and “poem with a line by andrew freiman,” which appear in Rock & Sling 9.2. She is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Memphis, where she is Poetry Editor of The Pinch. Her poems are also featured in Dunes Review and THRUSH Poetry Journal.


Rebekah Bresee: Both of your pieces in Rock & Sling 9.2 mention trains and birds. What symbolism or metaphors do these characters have for you? Additionally, is there a significant tie between birds and trees or is it coincidence that they both appear in these two poems?


Ashley Roach-Freiman: Right now I am teaching a poetry writing class for undergrads, and I ask them to make a list of the things they can always rely on to provide material for their poems. These things can be symbols, metaphors, images, things they like or don’t like…just things that obsess them or continually show up in their mental landscapes. Sometimes you don’t know what those things are, though, until they’ve shown up many times. For me, those things are probably trains, trees, plants, birds, and a language of searching or longing. A lot of it has to do with the landscape of Memphis, which is urban but lush, and situated on train tracks (I live right next to a train, and used to walk the tracks to get to the bar). It isn’t a coincidence…both poems were written in a close span of time, last fall/winter, both are trying to figure out the same internal landscape, in a way.


RB: Is the narrator in “Red Bird Elegy” a cat?


AR-F: No, but you aren’t the first person to say the narrator of my poems is cat-like (see Twin Cell in Midway Journal).


RB: The last four lines in “Red Bird Elegy” are almost “covered” in red.  That is, after “the blood splash of a cardinal,” the language is strongly capturing the gruesome struggle of the cardinal as it dies. This seems to contrast with the whiteness of snow a few lines before. Was this your intent? If so, why?


AR-F: That’s really perceptive. I wanted there to be a stark contrast between the waiting of the first lines, the image of looking out windows, and the active realization of soul hunger in the final lines. It’s the experience of seeing a cardinal and it’s the only color in the white and gray and brown landscape and it’s so red and the narrator wants that red spiritually because her own internal landscape is so still that the only response is to eat it, perhaps metaphorically, but it’s more interesting if it is represented in this visceral way.


RB: Why did you title the poem “Red Bird Elegy” rather than “Cardinal Elegy”?


AR-F: It sounded better. I didn’t know I was doing this at the time, but I think a spondee followed by a dactyl just sounds more powerful, if I am scanning it right. Also, I love cardinals, but every time I hear the word cardinal I think of the St. Louis Cardinals and there’s too much of a feeling of sport in it and it is distracting to me.


RB: In “poem with a line by andrew freiman” you use red to describe the leaves. Why did you choose red and not another color?


AR-F: Again, because they represent the essential color in the landscape, both vitality and season, and because the single syllable of “red” was better there than, say, “carmine” which would have been too poetic, or “brown” which would have been dull.


RB: How is “red” the same and/or different in these two poems?


AR-F: Red in “Elegy” is really more of a spiritual entity. It’s practically a character in the poem. Red in “poem” is like a paint…gives the landscape some color, to show seasonal change, and emotional inflection.


RB: In “poem with a line by andrew freiman” you play around with the text. Some lines are in all caps, some are in italics, and a few lines change into caps in the middle of the line. Was the changing in font meant to play a role beyond referencing the graffiti or the line by andrew?


AR-F: Um, not on the surface, although I love the way it looks on the page because it so reminds me of the inside of my head when it is busy, which looks like a collage. There’s an emotional consistency, but there are all these voices saying different things. Some are shouting, some are saying reasonable things, some are reading the signs on the side of the road, and then there’s the writer constructing narrative around all of that. So this poem is a snapshot of the creative process as much as anything.


RB: Can you elaborate what is going on in these lines of “Red Bird Elegy”: “birds that light the bamboo/with sound, the song bright like candles/around a room”? I really love this language and want to understand what is going on.


AR-F: Imagine sitting in a room, looking out the windows and you can see a sort of bamboo forest and no birds at all, but you hear their chorus lighting up the expanse of shadow space, so loud and sparkling and bright that it is like you are almost right in the middle of them.


RB: Rock & Sling is a literary “journal of witness”. How do these poems fit into this genre, if you call it that? Or, perhaps, how do these poems function as expressions of faith?


AR-F: I wouldn’t consider myself a faithful person, but I am always fascinated by people who claim faith. When I write, there’s a spiritual tug and a longing for that. “Red Bird Elegy” especially is about needing something outside the boundaries of self but feeling blocked by the shadow self (I realize I am in love with a shadow in myself) and trying to reconcile with that. That shadow self can be self-criticism, self-destruction, self-awareness, doubt, anxiety, etc, etc. I think that is an essential spiritual struggle, whether or not it is encountered within the construct of faith. The line by Andrew Freiman “all the talking birds on the train talking Jesus” stuck a note in me because it felt like a line of transcendental poetry and it is so musical. The birds say what they will and we interpret them, but that was a hopeful, beautiful thing, or could be read that way…it’s sort of better if the birds talk Jesus than if we do, because the birds would probably understand better than humans, I think. I don’t know. That poem has an unrequited love poem underneath, and all the things that are said are the things that couldn’t be said to the beloved (oh how I think about you), and there’s a combined sadness and joy there that’s inexpressible except through trying to project it into the landscape. In a way, I suppose the poems represent oppositional ideas — the elegy projects hunger into the landscape and “poem” projects joy, but both are about searching, which is an inherent expression of spiritual practice.


Rebekah Bresee is a junior at Whitworth University where she’s majoring in English and minoring in business. She is currently the News Editor of the Whitworthian, the university’s award-winning weekly newspaper, and she works as an attendant at the University Recreation Center. Outside of school, she’s a youth leader of high school students at the First Presbyterian Church of Spokane.


April 13, 2015 / nicolespokane

Remembered Sounds: “My Sweet Lord”

my sweet lord

by Sunni Brown Wilkinson

The care center smelled on par with all the others I’d ever been in: musty and antiseptic with a passing breeze of mothballs.  I’d always found them depressing, but this one at least made very sincere efforts to keep things upbeat, even jazzy.  One day, they hired a guy to come in and, accompanied by synthesized, pre-recorded back-up music, croon such classics as “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” to a crowd of cheery residents who clapped and sang along.  The phoniness of this guy and his artificial “music” made me cringe.  But it made the residents happy.

I was there because, as a Mormon missionary, I was required to fulfill at least four hours of community service each week.  Aside from the usual teaching, training, and studying, I was to volunteer in the community where I currently lived which was, in this case, Vineland, New Jersey, a large suburban sprawl in the southern half of the state that seemed to be perpetually covered by gray clouds. 

It’s not that I didn’t love the work.  I did.  Or the people.  Some people we taught were like family to me.  But sometimes I wasn’t sure who was teaching them.

The cloistered life of a missionary promotes a kind of erasure of one’s personal identity: my first name was replaced by “Sister,” so that I was known for 18 months as “Sister Brown.” The only time I heard my first name was when I called my family back home, and that was only permitted twice a year, Mother’s Day and Christmas. And I was to put away all significations of my old life that could distract from my focus of sharing the gospel message. This included no TV (though we caught bits of game shows and novellas glimmering from people’s front rooms in the evenings), no movies (though my mother was saving for me a list of “must sees” for when I got home), and no secular music.  And while I generally embraced it and enjoyed focusing on matters of the spirit more, that last one was still a hurdle. 

In the cast that made up my childhood, the biggest star was classic rock.  “Oldies,” as the radio stations called them, provided the soundtrack to our family’s life. Hippies in their youth, my parents brought us up on the good bread of church, the outdoors, and the music of their generation.  My mother, who prefers her music loud with a touch of blaring, would open the front door and turn up Fleetwood Mac or Led Zeppelin on the stereo to the point where I could play in my friend’s front yard – three houses away – and still sing along to every song.  My dad even set up speakers on the back of the house so that Cream or The Beatles or Jethro Tull could accompany our volleyball games or gardening. To this day, whenever I hear certain songs, I’m immediately in our garden, under a blue summer sky, facing the mountains and picking raspberries.


This particular day at the care center, I found myself throwing a beach ball around to a group of senior citizens whose wheelchairs had been parked to form a circle.  This was not the group that clapped and sang along about doggies in windows.  These were the extremely quiet ones who didn’t complain about the food or look anxiously for family members to visit.  Most of them had a look of absence about the eyes.  But they could catch a ball, and it was my job to stand in the middle and keep up their daily “exercise.” 

In the corner, a small radio sat on a table.  So far, all I’d heard from it were songs I vaguely attributed to my grandparents’ generation.  But as one song flowed seamlessly into the next, something happened.  A renegade from my other life burst in. 

The first notes of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” started. And something way down in me broke loose and bubbled up to the surface. I stood there, holding a beach ball in the middle of a windowless room, surrounded by strangers and empty stares and, for the first time in months, felt wholly myself.  And along with myself came everything else.  Some memories came with logical connections (dancing in the front room with my little brother Riley, brooms for guitars or wooden spoons for microphones). Others clung to those connections like lint on a sock and so came along with them (the smell of the Wasatch mountains in spring rain, all the places I’d ever camped, the wallpaper of my childhood bedroom). 

 “I really want to see you… but it takes so long, my Lord,” he sang.  And I got it.  Even the Hare Krishna chorus that he repeated like a prayer. 

This was another way to worship. 


A song becomes “ours” because it gives us back to ourselves.  It unlocks remembrances that are sacred and unexplainable.  And in doing that, it reminds us of that longing for the God we know and don’t know yet.  It was really me, singing my heart out: “Really want to know you Lord but it takes so long, my Lord (hallelujah).” 

I believe in the value of traditional “church,”  but I also respect people who use their voice, their art to search for God.  What they create becomes our search too.  Our stairway to heaven, our bridge over troubled waters, our sweet Lord.


My top 10 list of “oldies”:

1) “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison

2) “That’s the Way” by Led Zeppelin

3) “Songbird” by Fleetwood Mac

4) “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson

5) “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones

6) “Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison

7) “I’ll Be Your Lover Too” by Van Morrison

8) “Moonlight Mile” by The Rolling Stones

9) “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane

10)”Going to California” by Led Zeppelin

Sunni Brown Wilkinson holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University.  Her poetry has been published in Weber: The Contemporary West, Red Rock Review, Gulf Stream, Rock & Sling, and other journals and anthologies and has been nominated for two PushcartsShe teaches at Weber State University and lives in Ogden, Utah with her husband and three young sons. She also blogs at

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April 6, 2015 / nicolespokane

When in Doubt…

vintage digestion

by Andy Zell

Let’s talk about Doubting Thomas.

First off, he’s got a branding problem: he’s forever known as a doubter.  He can never simply be Thomas anymore.  He can no longer hide in the back with Bartholomew or Jude when the Twelve get together.  He’s recognizable.  He can now be summarized in a single word.  Talk about pigeon-holed.  A one dimensional character.

It’s not like he denied Christ three times in one night.  He didn’t sell out Jesus for pieces of silver.  He didn’t even cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest with a sword.  All he did was doubt the resurrection of Jesus.  He wanted proof that Jesus wasn’t still in the tomb.  Specifically, he wanted to see Jesus with his own eyes and put his hand on the wounds of Jesus.  Sounds reasonable to me.

When faced with the incomprehensible, with apparent contradictions, with paradoxes both divine and human, doubt is only natural. I used to think doubt was the enemy of faith.  That it was a slow destroyer of true belief, eating away and hollowing out from the inside.  If faith is like a seed that grows into a tree, then doubt is like Dutch Elm disease.  But now I think doubt is more like digestion.  It allows beliefs to be broken down into usable bits and pieces, to be absorbed and to nourish a person while what is left over can be discarded.

Beliefs really can originate in the gut.  Or our metaphorical gut, anyway.  According to Jonathan Haidt’s social intuitionism theory of moral psychology, we often make moral judgments based on feelings and intuitions rather than rational thought.  It’s only later that we then justify those judgments with reasoning.  Here’s how it worked for me.

The things I believed spiritually growing up were fed to me at home, at church, and at school.  It was my milk.  It was pre-selected for me and fortified with everything I needed to grow.  And it made sense when my spiritual digestive system wasn’t fully developed yet.  I was still in what Robert E. Webber in Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail calls “familial faith,” the faith I grew up with.  I still had to transition through “searching faith” until I settled into “owned faith.”  My familial faith had all of the essentials: Jesus’ death and resurrection, love and grace, creation and covenant, sin and salvation.  But it had a lot of other beliefs as well, including all manner of extrapolations heaped on top of those essentials.  For instance, I believed that the creation had to be six literal days and that homosexuals chose to live in sin.

I was in college when I started to have doubts about the creation narrative in Genesis.  I didn’t understand how that six day account of the beginning of the universe could line up with my growing sense of wonder at the big bang and the evolution of life.  How could I still believe in the Bible?  The old formulas weren’t working for me anymore. Instead, the scientific explanations made sense to me.  They felt right somehow.  A recent study suggests that belief in evolution can come down to a quick intuitive response.  But did I have to reject modern scientific explanations in order to hold onto faith?

After college I had more doubts when friends from high school and college started to come out of the closet and reveal that they were gay.  I loved and cared about my friends, but I didn’t see any way out of my interpretation of the Bible that prohibited same sex relationships.  It nagged at me, though. I asked myself why my friends would have chosen to have the attractions that they did.  It went against everything they had been taught, and certainly didn’t make their lives any easier.  And if they didn’t choose, then I didn’t understand how God could make someone desire relationships and intimacy that they could never have.  I was at a loss, floundering in my confusion.  Could I continue to trust my old interpretations of the Bible?  Did I have to believe my friends were living in sin?  And if so, how could I believe in the goodness of God?

The cognitive dissonance I experienced with these doubts caused a lot of inner turmoil.  I felt uncertain much of the time, like I was teetering on the edge of a precipice, and if I fell off, I might not land safely.  It took me years of processing to come to the beliefs I now hold, that are part of me.  Those doubts worked like all the elements of digestion (saliva, gastric juices, intestinal villi, even bacteria in the colon!) to extract what was most important in my belief.  In the end I didn’t have to discard my faith.  I could hold onto the nourishing elements of belief and let the rest of the crap go.

You know, Thomas wasn’t alone in his doubt.  He had good company, actually.  His infamous time in the spotlight comes from John’s gospel.  But over in Luke’s account, all of the disciples doubted until they too had concrete proof that Jesus was truly resurrected.  It wasn’t even enough for them to see him. They weren’t able to come to terms with his resurrected body until he ate fish with them.

As for me, I still have lots of doubts.  It’s the only way I can process my belief.  But I think now I’m okay with the label of a Doubter.  After the next church potluck, I’ll just be sitting over with the rest of the Thomases, digesting.

Andy Zell spends much of his time wiping poopy bottoms as a stay-at-home parent to his three preschool children.  As it happens, he also recently read Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Those two factors probably explain his recent enthusiasm for digestion.  In his “spare time” (that’s a joke other parents will get) he blogs about literature, history, politics, religion, identity, and whatever else he’s thinking about, and he’s still trying to figure out Twitter.

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March 26, 2015 / nicolespokane

An Interview with Gerry LaFemina

little heretic cover

by Kyler Lacey

Gerry LaFemina is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College with an MFA from Western Michigan University. He writes poetry and fiction and has taught at several schools including West Virginia University, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Sarah Lawrence College. He has been published in Rock & Sling 9.2 and many other venues. His most recent books include Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist (2013) and Little Heretic (2014).


Kyler Lacey: I read your poems “Divinity, Pennsylvania” and “On a Photograph Beneath the Headlines” in Rock and Sling issue 9.2 and was really interested in some of the images that you use, particularly the ones with the woman wrestling the Dalmatian into the minivan and the fireman that was either perspiring or crying. The whole setting and everything about the place in “Divinity, Pennsylvania” is really intriguing. Is this town based off of somewhere you have actually been or is it a construct?


Gerry LaFemina: Well, I’m interested in place and how we exist in it: personally, emotionally, spiritually. “Divinity, Pennsylvania” got its start driving through rural western Pennsylvania between readings. I drove by several churches, two different cemeteries, and several gas wells within a couple of miles. So the key landscape images came from that. The woman with the Dalmatian didn’t appear till later: that image evolved from roadkill, to an accident, to a lot of other things—I wanted ambiguity there though. Is the Dalmatian dead? Hurt? I wanted to suggest a possible rebirth.

And no, there is no place named Divinity, Pennsylvania—at least not that I know of. Pennsylvania has a lot of interesting names though (Eighty-four, Laboratory…) so I thought Divinity sounded like the name of a city Pennsylvania could have.

“On a Photograph Beneath the Headlines” came from my imagination: there had been a fire in town in which a couple of kids had died, and I tried to write about the ruins. The poem didn’t quite open up that way, so then I started to focus on people who might have been there. When I settled on the fireman, the poem found itself.

Most of my poems are constructs. I work with what’s possible. Richard Hugo says in The Triggering Town that it’s important to leave one’s triggering subject as quickly as possible. That seems right. So whatever I observe becomes mediated by the imagination or else it’s just reporting or worse, solipsistic. My life seems pretty boring—I lived it, I’ve told its stories, so I’m much more interested in the life of what’s possible.


KL: I was also interested in your section in the contributors note’s. There are a couple of questions I have based on what you said, but first, if you don’t mind me asking, what did you do to get thrown out of the catholic school?

GL: I went to a Christian Brothers school (as opposed to say a Jesuit school) and the Brothers were less than open minded. There were five types of kids at my school: jocks, stoners, Guidos, preps, and homeboys. They all hated each other. There was also one punk rock kid—that was me. And whereas they all couldn’t stand each other, they all hated me. After one fight too many, the principal—a good Christian Brother—told me that I chose to get beat up because I chose to be different. When I pointed out his hypocrisy, noting that Jesus was also considered a malcontent and rule breaker, I was told I could change or leave. I used some good four letter words and was told I’d made my choice. I remain convinced that his sense of Jesus was ill conceived.


KL: You have a really good way of describing your relationship to faith in the note, as well as talking about an interest in “poems of doubt” and a willingness to be the “little heretic.” I would like to know more about this and the way you see that coming out in your writing.


GL: I have no interest in writing a dogmatic poem. I have no interest in writing propaganda. Every poem, for me, is an attempt at understanding the universe and my role in it. That means asking questions. I write what I know, but only insofar as it helps me explore what I don’t know. Although there are stitches of autobiography in my poems, I’m much more interested in exploring the imagined life. The imagination is one of the things that separates us from other species. Whatever “god” there is is surely well beyond the human (he’s no good uncle that we pray to for ten dollars, and he gives it to us—that makes god human) and human comprehension.

More, I distrust blind faith. Faith only matters in the face of doubt. St. Thomas is my favorite saint. Love is only powerful in the times its challenged. So is faith.


KL: I noticed that in some of your poetry, there is a distinct difference in place. What is the importance of geographic setting in a poem for you? Could a poem like “The Sacrosanct” have taken place in another major city like Seattle or Detroit?


GL: I’m very much a poet of place. I started the poems that inevitably became Little Heretic by wanting to write New York as an adult. I had moved out of the City at the age of 22, and it had dramatically changed in 20 years or so. I moved back to NY part time, and started to write the City as I saw it, complete with its ghosts.

“The Sacrosanct” could have taken place in DC maybe or London. But it would be a different poem in other regards. That poem is entirely a construct: nothing in it is based on an actual event, but it comes from my understanding of those locales.

That said, my poems have always moved around. Vanishing Horizon has poems that take place in the Caribbean, in West Virginia, in Michigan, and in New York—all places I’ve been. I can’t help but be influenced by my landscape. The next book will be less grounded in a literal place but more so in an emotional place.


KL: In doing poetry set in places like Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, how important is in-person research and experience to your work? Do you go to a particular place before writing something there?


GL: I split my time between Western Maryland and New York. So that’s my research. But I tend to travel with a little notepad, and I’m always jotting down images and lines that might become something. Still, I don’t really consider it research. I don’t go places with the idea of writing about it. I go places and if I see something that catches my eye and ear, I might write about it.

But the landscape is always a reflection of the emotional landscape or the spiritual terrain I’m in. Our moods and obsessions always affect what we “see” and how we interpret what we see.


KL: How did your career as a writer begin? I mean, when did you start to write for your own enjoyment?


GL: I’ve wanted to write all my life. I was raised before things like Head Start, so I went to a daycare in the Brooklyn Public Library. I was surrounded by books as a young child, and I wanted to be an author all my life. In the scrapbook of my childhood that my mother kept, in kindergarten I said I wanted to be an author or an astronaut. In eighth grade, I wanted to be an attorney or an astronaut. I wrote stories, poems, and songs my entire life. I wrote punk rock songs and performed in bands; I wrote poems for girls I was too scared to ask out (but I was too scared to show them the poems, too) and I wrote a lot of bad fiction.  I actually went to college to be a fiction writer, but I fell in love with poetry and began taking it seriously at the end of my freshman year.


KL: Where was your first publication?


GL: My first publication (that wasn’t a high school thing) was in a small magazine called Williwaw. It’s a magazine that’s long out of print now. But I remember thinking, because the envelope was so thick (they had sent the poems they hadn’t accepted back to me in the SASE) that it was a rejection letter. I was having a bad week so I put off opening the envelope for two days! It was a terrific feeling—I remember going to Thomas Lux (my teacher) and telling him immediately.  And when the poem came out finally in the journal, it was a bit like a first kiss. I wanted more.


KL: How did you find out about Rock & Sling?


GL: I’ve known about Rock & Sling for awhile. I co-edited an anthology called Evensong: Contemporary American Poets of Spirituality, and in doing the research for that, I discovered new journals of spirituality and faith, and Rock & Sling was one of them. When I was at the Festival of Faith in Writing at Calvin College last year, I became reacquainted with the journal and met some of the editorial staff. I really liked the poems and the poets in the issues I picked up there, so I decided to send. It’s often a challenge for me to send to places that have a spiritual bent because I don’t think of my spirituality as mainstream in a particular way.


KL: You’ve published several books of poetry. Tell me a little bit about the experience of not only being published, but being published multiple times. Is the first time as good as the third or fourth time?


GL: Hmmmm.  They’re different experiences. My first chapbook, Rest Stops, was very exciting—of course. It was a part of cooperative effort and the press did books by several of my friends, too. My first full length book, 23 Below, was published by a small press, but it got little support. Each book has had a different experience—all of them good, but each unique. It’s almost like asking which ex-girlfriend was “better.” I dated them all so I must have “loved” each of them, but my understanding and experience of what love is was different with each one—in part because of what I learned from the experiences dating the previous ones. So too, each book has had its own unique and very exciting experience in the world. That said, some editors and some presses have made certain experiences more pleasurable or more rewarding than others—and there are many factors that go into that. I don’t regret any of the books, and am happy with the presses I work with now.


KL: When you are putting together works for a book of poetry, do you write poems specifically for a book, or do you write the poems and arrange them into a book?


GL: I have no project in mind. I write poems, and whatever my unconscious obsessions are, they bubble up. I knew, with Little Heretic, I was writing a New York book, but I had no other parameters for choosing the work other than it would be the New York poems written between 2008 and 2013. I was trying to see New York as an adult. But even then, the process was the same: I knew it was time to “move on” as it were. So I pulled together all the poems and then started sorting through the poems that were keepers, the poems that surely weren’t and the poems that might be able to fit (maybe they needed work, maybe they needed to be re-envisioned, or maybe some could be combined). Then it’s a matter of finding a structure, of finding how the poems talk to each other, and how to create an arc of tension within that dialogue between the poems.

I’m just starting to work on a new book manuscript, tentatively titled The Story of Ash. It has lots of fire imagery in it, which is different for me. There are probably some 200 pages of poetry that I’ve written since Little Heretic (and maybe some poems that weren’t New York based that were written previously).  I’ll have to cut that down to  about 80 pages. Now it’s possible once I have that arc, once I have the order of the poems, I might discover (and I have in the past) the book needs poem to fill in the gap. Then I have to write that poem.

For instance, when I was putting together Vanishing Horizon I decided to separate these short lyric poems titled after tropical fruits and to use them as subtle chapter breaks. Well, in order for those “chapters” to be roughly the same length and to make sense, I needed another tropical fruit poem, and it had to move the book a certain way. So I wrote “Pineapple.”


KL: How long does it take you to write a poem from start to publication? Do you usually take a long time and sit on it before sending it out? Or do you mail it off once you feel like it is ready?


GL: I’m in no hurry to finish a poem. It often takes months from initial line to final draft. A lot of times I have just a fragment of a poem for several weeks. Once I decide to type it up, then I play with it. I have a few people who see typed poems and may give me some feedback. At a certain point, though, the poem’s got to get off my desk.

I won’t deny, though, certain poems, for whatever reason, excite me to keep working on them: maybe I’m doing something new, or else hitting some subject or some spark of language that feels “new” or fresh and I want to explore it more. Those tend to go through early drafts much more quickly than others.

I don’t know how to decide a poem’s “finished.” Even poems that have appeared in journals may get edited before they get in a book, and in all the copies of books I regularly use when I give readings have handwritten edits in them.


KL: Is there a particular medium that you prefer to draft in? Pen, pencil, computer, typewriter, or something else?


GL: I write poems in longhand, preferably in a black, medium point, roller ball pen. There’s something about the rhythm of my hand writing that feels essential to the rhythm of my poems.  But also, I don’t want to see the poems looking like they’re “in print” too soon. When I look at a poem that comes off the computer it looks so clean—I can even put it in a font I like, etc. It looks too finished, too polished, so it’s easier to miss some of the flaws.


KL: Do you feel like you feel like your teaching career or your time as a student has been more beneficial to your writing?


GL: My time as a student prepped me for my time as a teacher. My years doing an MFA helped solidify my foundations as a poet. But it’s my work helping others build their foundations that reminds me to ask myself the tougher questions about poetry—to keep pushing, and to remember that there’s still so much to learn.



Kyler Lacey is currently an undergraduate at Whitworth University on the road to graduating with his B.A. in English at age twenty. When he isn’t fixing typewriters or working on his pink ’57 Chevy, he likes to spend his time out hiking in the woods near where he lives in the Pacific Northwest.

March 19, 2015 / nicolespokane

On Cat Ownership

cat with boat

by T.J. Pancake

“Any dog under fifty pounds is a cat, and cats are pointless.” – Ron Swanson

It seems that in the world of domesticated animals and owners, there is a hierarchy of sorts. Dogs, clearly, are the—ahem—top dogs, as are their owners who love them and rub their faces, feed them leftovers, and dress them up like Santa around Christmastime. Fish are probably next, mostly for children to win at carnivals, but they can also represent a level of sophistication that comes with top-of-the-line tanks and cleaning mechanisms and precision temperature monitoring and downed pirate ships. Bunnies and the hamster/guinea pig/gerbil family are cute, but more rare, and smell miserable—ask my sister. Anything reptilian is exotic in a way not offered by the mammalian options, although they’re generally for teenage boys who are a little bit strange, and might torture ants in the backyard, and be named Sid.

Cats, perhaps related to their personalities, are an enigma. No other pet causes such extreme polarization. Not even politics divide people the way cats do. I am generally of the persuasion that if God had created animals to be domesticated, he would have made them complete with tiny sweaters and collars, bowls that say Fido or Felix, and their own personal pillow to lie around on all day. But God did not. He created them with claws and teeth and strong hind legs to outrun and pounce on their prey. And if animals were created for the wild, why, in fact, do we not leave them in the wild? We invite these barbaric creatures inside of our homes to bite our children and “do their business” on our floors. What Madness! My wife does not share this persuasion about animals.


We have a cat. His name is Ron Swanson, after the character from the TV show Parks and Recreation. I love Karly, loved her enough to ask her to marry me, and I decided this past September, a month before our wedding, that I would prove this love for her by surprising her with a tiny wedding present that would cuddle up with her and melt her heart, and she would remember me, her hero, and would tell me that she loved me back. Therefore, when a coworker mentioned that his in-laws had a litter of kittens they were giving away, I got the address and told Karly we were going on an adventure. The kittens were so small they could stand on my flattened palm. One started walking toward us, jittery on its feet, like it was still working out how to use its legs.  I think Karly cried a little. My plan worked.

When we first got Ron, he was extremely little, and, admittedly, cute. I would dangle an old shoestring in front of him, and he would chase it round in circles, rearing back on his hind legs, front paws up like a center in basketball, ready to swat. He would sprint across the floor with his back arched and his hind legs swung around like they were trying to outrun him. He would attack my hands, biting at my knuckles and my wrist, with his baby teeth. It tickled.

Now, Ron is a teenager, with all the rebellion that comes with it. I have kindly explained to him the value in staying off of the dinner table, as we would appreciate not eating his hair. I have disciplined him by spraying him with a high-powered squirt bottle in a futile Pavlovian attempt to train him. I have asked him to please, get his dirty, litter-encrusted paws off my table before I leave him out in the snow to fend for himself—“You live in my house, you live by my rules!” I have apologized after saying hurtful things to him. And yet, every time I leave the room, I hear him knocking around a cup or a plate, playing with the silverware. He will get up onto the coffee table, look me in the eyes, and slide a cup half-full of water off onto the floor without blinking. I wonder why I ever let this soulless beast into my home.


This is a new scene with Ron: I am leaving for work in the morning after Karly is already gone. I put on my coat and sling my bag over my shoulder. Ron comes up and lies down in the chair near the door. “Watch it,” I tell him, making sure he isn’t going to make a run for it as soon as I crack the door. He just blinks at me lazily. I open the door and slide out, pulling it shut behind me. I hear the blinds shaking as I lock the door and look over to see Ron, who has climbed up onto the windowsill and is watching me. He puts his paw up onto the glass. I walk over and tap the window with my index finger. There’s something about that inane cat that makes me love him despite the table-dirtying, cup-tipping, morning-waking, writing-interrupting madness he brings to my life. It’s something not quite deserved. He spends the majority of his time intentionally annoying me. I have given him clear instructions, which he has actively ignored. But he’s still mine.

I realize now that this is too predictable of an ending, where time and a cute little face melt the icy villain’s heart. But it occurs to me that it was less that I was won over by Ron in time. It’s more that I decided from the beginning that I was going to love him. I loved him before we got in the car to pick him up, before I explored the backseat with him when Karly went in to buy him food and litter, before he slept on my neck for the first two weeks we had him, and, yes, before he shattered three of our nice glasses and gashed my forehead while I was sleeping. I vowed to Karly that I would. So even when he is at his worst, I know that I will give him Grace, because he’s my strange domesticated animal and I love him. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

TJ Pancake went to Cedarville University, where he studied to Preseminary Bible in preparation for becoming a pastor. Through the years, he has continually rediscovered a love for writing. He lives in Dayton, OH where he is helping to plant a church and hoping to improve his writing skills. His essay, “Against Grandiosity,” appeared in issue 9 of Mock Turtle Zine. He also loves food. Especially when it’s fried. Image from

March 2, 2015 / nicolespokane

On the Advent of an Unbroken World

beer sessions

by Karissa Knox Sorrell

In his poem “Ode to the Unbroken World, Which is Coming,” Thomas Lux wrote:

It must be coming, mustn’t it? Churches

and saloons are filled with decent humans.

Once I would have thought of those two places as opposites. Churches were where the good people went, and saloons – or bars, in our modern day – were where bad people went. It’s so easy to slap labels on people, isn’t it? I bet that while I was looking down my nose at the bar folks, they were making fun of my goody-girl ways.

The thing that strikes me about these lines is that Christianity is so full of talk of brokenness, and Jesus is where we are supposed to find healing, redemption, and unbroken-ness. Yet Lux suggests that even the bar people are full of decency and renewal.

As a suburban mom, I’m not big into the bar scene, but recently I went to a bar to see a band. It was a local band that some friends and I used to follow right after we graduated from college. The band went defunct around 2009, but they were having a reunion show, and I thought it would be fun to relive old times with my friend Karla.

We sat in the balcony of the bar and I people-watched to pass the time until our band went on. The place was moving with activity: waitresses maneuvering around loiterers to deliver trays of drinks to tables full of glittery women, bearded men standing around the bar with beer bottles in hand, band members greeting old fans and friends in the middle of it all.

I watched Karla mingle with the friends she’d made during that time in our lives. Right before then, Karla had been halfway through seminary when she’d had to move home in hopes of getting custody of her nephew. The plan fell through, but Karla ended up staying and finishing her theology degree at a local university. Still, the disappointment was palpable. As I watched her laugh and reminisce with old friends, I wondered if the bar and music scene had saved Karla back then.

When the band we came to see finally went on, it was almost midnight. I sang along with the old tunes, remembering all those nights in our early twenties when we followed this band from venue to venue. At the time, I was trying hard to fit in. I’d grown up in an alcohol-free Christian home and I was exploring new territory. I usually ordered the only mixed drink I knew: rum and Coke. I would stand there, sipping on that tiny straw, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. The truth is, though I had some fun, I always felt like an outsider.

* * *

The thing is that sometimes I get the same feeling when I go to church. I stare at the icons with their blue and green hues and golden halos, and I listen to the harmonies of the choir. I chime in on the soprano line sometimes, and when it gets too high, I switch over to alto. I cross myself when the Trinity is mentioned, and I gently intone the phrase “Most Holy Theotokos save us,” which is sung whenever Mary is referred to. There is a quiet beauty to this place, these rituals.

I think what I can’t bear is the thought that we are, on our own, evil. That because a mythical man and woman ate some fruit long ago, we have been deemed broken. I don’t claim to believe that story anymore, although I don’t know what to do with Jesus without it. After all, this is how the world was supposed to be saved: through church, through Jesus.

I wonder if our idea of salvation got warped somewhere. I think it’s possible that God created us and thought we were good. And he still does. Maybe the way Jesus lived his life is our salvation, too. Perhaps it is in the living of it that we are saved: in the loving of outcasts, in the forgiving of others, in the dining with tax collectors, in the simple lifestyles, in the caring for the poor.

These thoughts, of course, go against the formulas and teachings of the church, so it’s no wonder that I feel a little uneasy at church anymore. I cringe at every talk of sin; I also wonder if I am being judged for my rebellious questions.

I can, however, believe in the hope of Lux’s unbroken world. I can believe that all things can be remade and renewed. At the end of his poem, Lux reminds us again of the promise of such a realm:

The unbroken world is coming,

(it must be coming!), I heard a choir,

there were clouds, there was dust,

I heard it in the streets, I heard it

announced by loudhailers

mounted on trucks.

Again, he uses imagery from both church and an old western saloon movie. Can either of them save us?

Maybe I am simply one of the loudhailers, announcing with gusto that yes, a healed world is coming, someday soon, though I can’t exactly explain how.

Karissa Knox Sorrell is a writer and educator from Nashville, Tennessee. She has an MFA from Murray State University, and her poetry and nonfiction have been published in a variety of journals, including Relief, St. Katherine Review, Catapult Magazine, Parable Press, and FlycatcherKarissa works with ESOL teachers and students in Nashville’s public school system. Read more of her writing on her blog, or follow her on Twitter @KKSorrell

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