Staying with Your Authentic Emotions

by Courtney Spohn

On June 24, 2020, I listened to Sarah Jane Abbott, a children’s and middle-grade editor, during one of the Highlight Foundation’s Writer Chats. Abbott said her publishing house is looking to publish happy stories now because, as moderator Sarah Aronson said, “we all want to be happy right now.” I heard this and wondered what types of books I’ll read to my young son a couple of years from now. Are we going to miss the emotional import of this moment because we’re looking for happy stories? As a poetry editor, I want to read happy poems only if they are genuinely happy poems. I want to read sad poems, grief-filled poems, angry poems, love poems, hopeful poems only if they are genuinely sad, grief-filled, angry, full of love, hopeful. I want to encourage all poets to feel the emotions they’re actually feeling and write their poetry accordingly.

Please “go there” when you feel safe enough to do so. I’ve read quite a few poems recounting difficult, even traumatic, events that seem to be autobiographical, and I’m stopped when a writer relies on the experience to speak for itself or when the writer wants to put a lesson or moral on it before the experience feels ready to be packaged in such a way. Conflicting advice that I’ve given and read is to “show, don’t tell.” When I’m reading about a difficult event, I want to know what meaning the writer finds in it. When we’re looking at a personal experience in a poem, I want to hear more than the details of the event. I want to hear how the writer feels. And how does the writer see it now? These are not questions that need to be answered literally. I want to hear clues about how a writer put their hand to paper after something damaging happened to them. How did you do that? And why? Again, these are not literal questions looking for literal answers. Tell me through emotions—I believe this is how we understand each other.

I also believe we skip over a few emotional steps when we try to package our experience in a way that makes it look culturally acceptable—we can look virtuous, for example, if we say we learned a lesson or deepened a value, like forgiveness. Yet our experiences, and where we’re at with them, may not honestly be leading us toward cultural acceptability. Many of us feel the tension between saying what we mean while wanting to feel a sense of belonging in a community. So we observe the community’s rules and may hide the parts of ourselves so that we can hold on to the sense of belonging. I encourage writers to write what they really mean—to express how they really feel. Tell us about the conflicting emotions or the emotions that many people (I like calling those people “idiots”) tell us are “too much.” Tell the truth about where you are and see what happens in your writing.

I share this to encourage writers during hard times—when that battle between being true to themselves or their community feels like an all-or-nothing proposition. Many of us understand a wide range and depth of feeling and have the capacity for all kinds of stories, not just the happy ones. Please trust your authentic voice and, when it feels right, please share this voice. Our authenticity helps develop our sense of connection.

Courtney Spohn lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has participated in various poetry readings. With Sheila e. Black, she has a poem published in Otoliths. She is a life coach and blogger at

Nimrod Literary Awards Results: 2020

The editors of Nimrod International Journal are delighted to announce the winners, honorable mentions, finalists, and semi-finalists of the 42nd Nimrod Literary Awards.

Nimrod Literary Awards: The Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry

FIRST PRIZE: Rebecca Foust, CA, “Blackout” and other poems
SECOND PRIZE: Janine Certo, MI, “Home Altar in the Year of a Pandemic” and other poems

A.D. Lauren-Abunassar, PA, “Victim Impact Statement” and other poems
Richard Michelson, MA, “A Horse-Cure” and other poems

Nimrod Literary Awards: The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction

FIRST PRIZE: Mohit Manohar, DC, “This Has Not Been Enough”
SECOND PRIZE: Gage Saylor, OK, “Jailbird”

Carol Dines, MN, “Grace’s Mask”
Hayley Lynch, KY, “The Tremendous Machine”
Grace Newman, NY, “Initial Consultations”

Nimrod extends deep appreciation to all who submitted and would like to congratulate all winners, honorable mentions, finalists, and semi-finalists. Selecting the poetry and
fiction finalists was a task that dominated the lives of Nimrod’s editors all spring.
They approached their mission with dedication and discretion, reading and
rereading the final group, comparing notes, and speaking for favorites. The
finalists’ manuscripts, without cover letters or names, were sent to the judges for 2020. Kaveh Akbar served as poetry judge, and Joy Castro served as
fiction judge. They chose the winners and honorable mentions from the finalist

The 43rd Nimrod Literary Awards competition begins January 1, 2021; the
deadline is in April. We welcome your submissions, knowing that each
year brings new discoveries, often from those who have submitted to the
competition before.

All entrants not previously contacted by Nimrod about their work may consider
their work released at this time.

Fiction Finalists
Jean Ferruzola, WA, “Burn Brightly and Rise”
Jessi Phillips, MI, “Anything You Ask Me To”

Fiction Semi-Finalists
Kristyn Childres, IN, “The Northeast Kingdom”
Alice Hatcher, AZ, “Caesura”
Sasha Hom, CA, “Always, Peanut”
Alex Hughes, OK, “Crown”
Grace Spulak, NM, “More Than Bright”
Nicole VanderLinden, IA, “Fiddler”

Poetry Finalists
Jubi Arriola-Headley, FL, “Peacocking” and other poems
John Blair, TX, “Seeking Dr. Einstein” and other poems
Chuck Carlise, MI, “Solana” and other poems
Jehanne Dubrow, TX, “Metamorphoses”
Benjamin Gucciardi, CA, “I Ask My Sister’s Ghost to Write Her Own Elegy” and other poems
Youssef Helmi, FL, “Scarf” and other poems
Caroline Mei-Len Mar, CA, “Dream of the Lake” and other poems
Jessica Pierce, OR, “We all have our work to do” and other poems
Sean Reynolds, IL, “The Year My Voice Began to Crack” and other poems
Frances Richey, NY, “Bloody Mingo County” and other poems
Darius Simpson, CA, “Yea I Did It” and other poems
Alice Templeton, CA, “Youth Sermon” and other poems
Theresa Q. Tran, OR, “Mercy” and other poems
Jeanne Wagner, CA, “Speaking in Tongues” and other poems
James Wyshynski, GA, “Counting Out the Cost” and other poems

Poetry Semi-Finalists
Yasmine Ameli, MA, “History Lesson” and other poems
Yvonne Amey, FL, “Bad Brains, a Woke Mosh Pit, and a D.C. Haiku” and other poems
Shannon Austin, MD, “Dollhood”
Diane Beck, CO, “History of Winter” and other poems
Imani Cezanne, CA, “No Crowns Allowed Through TSA” and other poems
Lauren Coggins, SC, “Eating Light” and other poems
Marsha Truman Cooper, CA, “The Rapture of Bees” and other poems
Marissa Davis, NY, “When the Blood Came” and other poems
Tyler Dunston, NY, “8 lines in the Grace Church garden” and other poems
Bernard Ferguson, FL, “juxtaposition with death” and other poems
Jana-Lee Germaine, MA, “Learning Curve” and other poems
W.J. Herbert, NY, “The Latin Lesson” and other poems
Anthony Immergluck, WI, “Madre Matryoshka” and other poems
Karen Kovacik, IN, “Farsickness” and other poems
Susan Landgraf, WA, “Out of the Roase Garden” and other poems
Kathleen Michael, VA, “Cowbird” and other poems
Amy Miller, OR, “The Church of the Hair Salon” and other poems
Oak Morse, TX, “Sashay” and other poems
Gail Newman, CA, “Two Men Talking” and other poems
Wendy Scott, PA, “Two Body Problem” and other poems
Emily Van Kley, WA, “Affidavit for Self-Care & Other Questionable Ephemera” and other poems
John Walser, WI, “Give yourself over to the trees, to the sun” and other poems
Amie Whittemore, TN, “First Self-Portrait with the Artist” and other poems

In These Uncertain Times, Libraries Are Still Here

by Rebecca Harrison

What is a public library with no public? When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the physical doors of our 24 library locations, the leaders and employees at Tulsa City-County Library quickly posed this question. And, almost as quickly, they began formulating answers. As the adage goes, a library is more than a building. It’s something bigger, fiercer, more idealistic. With our customers forced to stay home for the foreseeable future, we adapted nimbly, reminding those in our community about our myriad online resources. Folks could check out one of our thousands of eBooks to help manage the endless tedium of quarantine. They could visit our Facebook page for virtual yoga classes, book talks, and even gardening advice. If you were feeling pressure to use all this newfound free time to pick up a new hobby, the library could point you to digital books on knitting, drawing, or playing guitar. We leveraged our social media reach to connect with our customers, to let them know that even when the world seems to be falling apart, we’re still there.

Then, right on the heels of a historic pandemic, the world shifted again. The 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred in the midst of a global awakening. Again, the public library recognized its duty to provide access to information and to guide our customers to resources to help them navigate important topics like the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-racism, and white privilege. Our staff set to work developing nonfiction and fiction book lists on these topics. Our CEO, Kimberly Johnson, issued a statement voicing TCCL’s support for the “collective action to end systemic racism.”

But it’s not just our library. Libraries all across the nation are stepping up; if you’re not local to Tulsa and haven’t looked to see what your library has been up to, you might be surprised to find out they’ve been quietly making a difference in your community. Let this be a nudge for you to check out what your library has to offer—as we face these times of uncertainty and disruption, I am proud to be part of an institution that strives both to serve and to lead.

Rebecca Harrison is the manager of Adult Services at the Central Library in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When she’s not at the library, you may find her writing, reading, or marveling over how cute her cats are.


by Britton Gildersleeve

In this time of virtual realities—and real isolation—it’s a small miracle to “get away.” Reading Mohja Kahf’s book My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit is a perfect daytrip to a life almost certainly different from most of ours right now. And beautifully so.

Kahf, a Syrian-American Muslim, offers windows into her daily life: several poems on various Muslim holidays (Eid, Ramadan), many on foods familiar to those of us fortunate enough to have spent time in the Middle East. There are poems of language, and poems of bodies, and poems of desire. Some poems are braided from each of these parts. One of Kahf’s shorter poems—“Olive Oil & Thyme”—lauds friendship, comparing it to bread dipped first into olive oil, then into thyme, sesame, and sumac. The spice mix is a riff on za’atar, a spice familiar in Arabic cooking, and becomes an image of a “lifelong friendship / never the same flavor twice.”

There is much of eating, of desire, of sensual beauty, of sex and its progenitor lust, in Kahf’s vivid poems. Here you’ll see eroticism in a grapefruit, that it could become a “tender membrane / exposing rose-glistening / grapefruit flesh / wet wedges opening. . . .” Who knew a date could transform, when seen through the lens of Kahf’s poetic eye, into a woman’s inner body? And who but Kahf can help you see a man’s body as a sonnet?

Even language takes on a languid nature—“Can we speak together over time and space / naked of our names?” the poem “Woman-Crisp” asks. “Say you have been entrusted with a packeta / A word to give to me / I am ready // Text me from your Galaxy / Message me from your apartment of fire / inside the sun . . . Hurry! Before I fry / into burnt woman-crisp // All that needs to be written is a single word.” And we are left conjuring a word that might save her. . . .

In the Author’s Note at the end of her book, Kahf highlights the “poetic foremothers” mentioned in a few of her poems; her note is its own poetic polemic. Kahf (rightly) impugns the “racist imperialist heteropatriarchy” for not “listening” to Arab women poets. And she asks, “How can I, plus the roving writing crowd of Arab women alongside me, write the body within a world that wreaks violence on brown and black bodies?” And Kahf succeeds, eloquently, in writing the body.

Drawing from centuries of varied literary heritages, Kahf is intimately familiar, as her work demonstrates, with quotidian Arabic experiences. Ramadan is eloquently summarized as “slow-ticking day . . . blink-quick night.” Having lived through several Ramadans in two Muslim countries (Algeria and Saudi Arabia), I love that metaphor—the days move so very slooowly, and the nights of feast and family are over in a blinking of moments.

Agile dance of rhyme, rhythm, and the musical interplay of idiom and prayer and science scaffold one of my favorite poems from the book, “Moonbopped.” Kahf deftly juggles references to Michelangelo ( “he careens / twirling into chapel walls and smearing paint”) with “the moon / lumped me a great big shiner just today / bopped me clear / into the electron-humping subatomic Quark-o-sphere.” Jazz riffs, sub-atomic physics, Renaissance greats . . . each as necessary as a line break, as the lack of stanzaic white space. Do not be seduced by gorgeous images alone—this is a writer who knows her craft.

Perhaps the most evocative poem for me is the final one in the book: “Bury Me in Arabic.” Kahf articulates the rhetorical flourishes of so many mannered exchanges with Arabic friends—“Always multiply the gift— / ‘welcome’ to ‘two welcomes’ / ‘a hundred welcomes and kinship and ease’ / ‘Keep offering tray after tray of words.’” How vivid is that? Words piled like dates or pistachio and honey sweets, on an inlaid tray, offered in largesse to friends and family.

Kahf then turns to the reply and response of ritual politeness that far too many of us have lost the inclination to take time for:

Wishing a sneezer “mercy” is a three-step dance
They reply “guidance and rightness of mind”
You match “guidance for you and me both”
When you cough you get “health”; top it off
“health and vigor!” or raise it  to “two healths!”

But the wryly poignant double-play of the title is fully realized at the poem’s close, when Kahf moves from “burying” us in the formalized exchanges of Arabic social conversation to the poem’s final stanza, where “May you bury my bones” becomes a beautifully succinct metaphor for “supreme love / and has no utterable answer.”

It seems very appropriate these dark days to look through Kahf’s eyes into rooms filled with such love—of all the daily happenings in a full life. That it is also a life with which too many of us are unfamiliar is a bonus. I, for one, am grateful to remember.

My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit
Mohja Kahf
Press 53, April 2020
Winston-Salem, NC
Paperback, 84 pages
Price: $14.95

Mohja Kahf is a professor of comparative literature & Middle Eastern studies at the University of Arkansas. The author of the novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Kahf has two other poetry collections, as well as a nonfiction work. She is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, the Arkansas Arts Council Individual Artist Award, and the 2020 Press 53 Award for Poetry.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.