What to Read When: Rumpus Staff Favorites 2019

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This year has been unrelenting. America and the world continue to face a series of crises that we are ill-prepared to manage, let alone avoid. I am struggling to believe that next year might be different. I’m struggling to feel hopeful about the upcoming presidential election. I feel frightened, and powerless.

Of course, that is what we’re meant to feel. The patriarchal power structure is designed to silence voices of women, of people of color, of anyone who would challenge its foundation and seek its dismantling. And this is why we must continue on, and why we must keep making art.

Reading through the writing we’ve published at The Rumpus in 2019, it is impossible not to find hope and comfort. Our contributors shared stories, essays, poems, interviews, comics, and book reviews that investigate what it means to be alive in America today. We are honored by and thankful for all of their work.

I’ve asked my editors, the unsung heroes who volunteer to help keep this ship afloat, to share their favorite Rumpus pieces from 2019. I’ve shared mine, too. Please remember that if you aren’t named below, it doesn’t diminish your contribution to The Rumpus. Your words matter to me so very much, and have carried me through each day of 2019.

Love,
Marisa

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Marisa Siegel, Editor-in-Chief

I read everything that goes up at The Rumpus, across all sections. Really. Choosing favorites feels like choosing between my children (luckily I only have one actual kid, so I’ll never have to do this IRL). So, please forgive the long list that follows; I did my best to pare it down but am a very proud mama.

We launched ENOUGH in November 2017, and two years later our readers continue to give these stories attention, sharing them on social media and taking the conversation off the page out into the real world. To be able to offer this space for women and non-binary folx to share their experiences and to amplify the conversation around rape culture remains the most meaningful experience I’ve had as an editor thus far.

Every installment of this series is worth your attention, but if I can only call your attention to one 2019 piece, it would be Natalie Eilbert’s stunning, aching, gorgeously crafted “Crime and Composure.” This essay is a testimony and a gift; its searing power is unlike any other essay I’ve had the honor to edit.

We introduced Rumpus Original Poetry as a regularly occurring series in 2017. In 2019, we were thrilled to increase its frequency from twice monthly to weekly. We also began considering unsolicited poetry this year, and in our first open reading period we received over two thousand submissions. To call the poetry we’ve received “slush” is a disservice, and the bulk of the original poetry we publish is now unsolicited.

This year, Nicholas Nichols joined poetry editors Cortney Lamar Charleston and Carolina Ebeid as an assistant poetry editor, and the team curated a staggering selection of beautiful and important work. My top poetry picks:

Kiki Petrosino’s innovative use of erasure in her featured poems calls out the inherent biases that exist in scientific language through her “whiting out” sections of DNA testing results so that readers can highlight passages and see the full text but are only immediately reading the words carefully chosen to remain visible. This is extremely effective, and beyond that, the words which remain visible form meaningful poetry that also emphasizes the biased ways humanity organizes itself and who is harmed in that organizing.

I love Kien Lam’s featured poetry for their wildness and intimacy. In these carefully crafted poems, Lam demonstrates how often it is through very particular details we can glean universal truths. These are poems that whisper their truths in my ear as I listen, rapt.

Our National Poetry Month Project brings forth an abundance of magnificent new poetry each April, and this year was no exception. Hafizah Geter’s poem “My Brother-in-law Recites the Takbir,” is heartbreaking in its sharpness. Geter’s exacting line breaks and unexpected turns throughout the poem keep us spellbound and bring us with her into the rooms the poem inhabits. In Joseph Rios’s “Another Poem about a Mountain,” Rios uses repetition and straightforward language to drive home a complex and necessary reality for readers. The poem builds as it moves forward, and I was left breathless at how much ground Rios covers in just four stanzas.

Finally, I want to highlight Uma Menon’s featured poems. Menon is a fifteen-year-old high school student, though her poems belie a wisdom and talent well beyond her young age. Menon’s poems remind me that our greatest hope for the future always lies with our children—and that this next generation of warriors is already fighting to be heard, to seek change, and to right wrongs.

Also running twice a month, Rumpus Original Fiction had another banner year under the leadership of Karissa Chen and Dennis Norris II. Featuring stories from established writers like Tyrese L. Coleman, Sharma Shields, and T Kira Madden alongside notable newcomers like Alexa Eve and Kristen Sahaana Surya, there isn’t a weak link to be found. I especially loved Gabrielle Rucker’s story “Lunch Money” and Arielle K. Jones’s story “Sabbath”—both are exquisitely, even sumptuously, detailed and both feature memorable protagonists who stay with us long after reading.

We run three interviews each week, and powerhouse interviews editor Monet Patrice Thomas never disappoints.

Two of my favorite interviews from 2019 came from contributor J. Isaiah Holbrook. In “Racism’s Shadow: A Conversation with Maurice Carlos Ruffin,” Holbrook talks with Ruffin about his debut novel We Cast a Shadow, about the ways racism affects all Americans, and about the importance of questioning—and ultimately, changing—the systems of power currently in place in our country. In “Departures and Returns: A Conversation with Sarah M. Broom,” Holbrook and Broom delve deep into how Broom structured her brilliant debut memoir, The Yellow House. Holbrook’s thoughtful questions and Broom’s enlightening answers offer necessary insight into how we approach crafting our lives into stories.

In “Flowers Grow in Shit: Talking with Sohaila Abdulali,” contributor Lauren Puckett spotlights a writer whose courage and candor is inspiring. Abdulali discusses the process of writing about her own rape and about the sexual assault of those she interviewed for What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, the importance of having more—and more open, honest—conversations about rape, and why she insists on feeling joyful in the face of terrible despair.

Finally, “Deep, Wide, and Ridiculous: Talking with Diane Seuss” by contributor Frances Donovan offers us—okay, me—a reminder “to not see everyday obligations as separate from creativity,” and that it’s okay if sometimes “poetry steps back to make space.” I felt like Seuss was speaking directly to me, sharing truths I needed to hear.

Our books editor Chelsea Leu and poetry reviews editor Zain Aslam are responsible for the awesome book reviews we publish most Wednesdays and Fridays. My top picks:

In “Peripheral Terror: Total Recall by Samantha Giles,” torrin a. greathouse writes that, “Total Recall offers something increasingly rare, a unique and transformative piece of writing that will profoundly alter the way you think about memory, narrative, and how we, as a society, construct the truth.”

In “An Atlas of Unmappables: Jennifer S. Cheng’s Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems,” Julie Marie Wade chooses to respond to Cheng’s “expansive and idiosyncratic project” in kind, sharing a review itself made up of a letter, a map, and a poem.

In “The Gates of American Belonging: Devi S. Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues,” Claire Calderón impresses upon us why and how Laskar’s debut novel “is a masterful hybrid of forms: it’s a poet-journalist’s journey to collect and interrogate evidence, to study the geography of a woman of color’s trauma, and to reckon with the legacy of violence that guards the gates of American belonging.”

Finally, in “The Precipice of Possibility: Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn,” Zakiya Harris considers the importance of offering readers questions rather than answers. She writes that Jamison “isn’t trying to convince me or you or any of her readers of anything except that perhaps this unsureness we feel toward the unknown—this uneasiness—is absolutely essential.” I agree wholeheartedly.

Our comics editor Brandon Hicks curates our Spotlight section and all reoccurring comics series at The Rumpus. This year, we introduced Kelcey Parker Ervick’s truly wonderful series “Welcome to South Bend” and featured powerful Spotlight comics like Courtney Cook’s “God Circle,” Aubrey Hirsch’s “The Curse,” and Sam Nakahira’s “Reflections on My Quiet Nature.”

And then there are the features. I agonize over this list every year, whittling it down, somehow, to just five essays. I aimed to find an intersection between the writing that mattered most to me and the writing that felt most exemplary of the work I want The Rumpus to be publishing.

In “Toil and Trouble,” Nicholas Russell somehow touches on intergenerational trauma, horror films, witchcraft, gender inequality, and more in a haunting meditation on mental illness and his relationship to his mother that covers a tremendous amount of terrain in a clear, concise essay.

Columnist Marissa Korbel, in “The Thread: Down Girl,” refuses the criticism that personal writing is lesser than; she insists that the “nitty gritty—the how, the smell, the particularities of what ‘hard’ means—is what we read for, and it’s what makes us feel the experiences that are not ours at all, and metabolize the lessons that we haven’t actually learned.”

With her essay “How I Lived and Wrote in Las Vegas,” Jean Chen Ho writes thoughtfully about whiteness as default within the writing workshop and demystifies the MFA experience, insisting that “what happens in the creative writing workshop doesn’t stay there—not that you’d want it to.” Chen Ho finds that, “In what one might think of as the oddest place to do so, I learned to turn inward, to face myself and cultivate solitude.”

“Trudging Down Death Road,” by Nigerian writer Tega Oghenechovwen, is a lyric rumination on death and loss—and the grief the living are left behind to carry. Oghenechovwen’s writing is profound and practical all at once, and we’re swept up into his experiences through the intense and poignant scenes he presents.

Finally, Lidia Yuknavitch’s “Spines of the Finwomen” is, all at once: a sprawling consideration of the body in all its complexity, a celebration of the so-called monstrous, a lament for the ways women’s bodies are harmed, and a clarion call for readers to interrogate how we feel about our bodies and what we consider monstrous. It is an essay that shatters traditional notions of what an essay can be and encourages us to similarly shatter our notions of what we can be and do in the world.

 

Zain Aslam, poetry reviews editor

I took on the role of poetry reviews editor in August. When I was trying to psyche myself up to take on the role and contribute to this forward-thinking space that its editors have collectively built, I returned again and again to the brilliant work that poetry editors Cortney Lamar Charleston and Carolina Ebeid showcased in celebration of National Poetry Month 2019. Every day for thirty days, readers were presented a new poem by some of my absolute favorite writers, including: Khadija Queen, sam sax, Eloisa Amezcua, Kaveh Akbar, and Cameron Awkward-Rich. The preparation involved in organizing such a powerful selection of poems to run in such a short amount of time is astounding.

The project gave me the motivation and confidence to continue building a readership that celebrates literature that’s historically been often ignored. In the span of one month, The Rumpus defined a new American poetry that both looks to the future and is incredibly resonant in 2019. It’s incredibly difficult to just pick one poem from the project as a favorite because, and I’m not exaggerating, they’re all quite magnificent. I do, however, have a favorite and it’s appropriately the first poem we published this April. “Leaves of Grass,” by Justin Phillip Reed, is a revelation to me, the American, much like the other Leaves of Grass was for nineteenth-century Americans. Reed offers an honest summary of what it feels like to be an American in this current moment, and presses on the guilt and shame of my conscience like an acupuncturist who knows which pressure points to hit to help me self-destruct then reinvent myself. It’s a poem that I’ll return to as we enter into an incredibly terrifying election year.

I’ve had the pleasure to work with smart, sensitive, and talented writers over the past five months. With the help of my mentor, senior poetry editor Molly Spencer, I’ve been able to try and expand a modern critique of poetry. It’s hard to select a favorite review, but I often think about Stephanie Wong Ken’s review of Shira Erlichman’s Odes to Lithium. Ken’s review embraces storytelling, journalism, and literary criticism. Ken offers insight into Erlichman’s collection with empathy and mastery. I revisit this review to enlighten myself; it’s such a pleasure that a review of a collection about living with mental illness helps me, as the reader, cope with my own struggles with mental illness.

 

Elissa Bassist, Funny Women editor

While all the pieces in the Funny Women column are my favorite, these from 2019 are extremely my favorite:

“DeVos’s New Rules Support Assault Allegation Survivors” by comedian Hanna Dickinson weaponizes comedy; it satirizes a bonkers headline about actual proposed legislation to expose its evil: “Sexual assault is not sexual assault if the accused has parents with a house in Aspen, is Protestant (or at least not Jewish), can pull off a fedora, maintains a Keto diet, has attended at least one live DJ set, has a low-key benzodiazepine hookup, has an attractive mother whom his friends can sexualize ‘as a joke,’ and/or considers himself a ‘Vegas guy’ but also loves Miami.”

“How to Be Adorable for Him” by adorable writer Cara Michelle Smith was a career milestone for me because we collaborated on the last line (“Try butt stuff, I guess”) and editor-in-chief Marisa did not cut it. Also, every other line in this piece is *chef’s French kiss.*

In “Whimsical Abortion Procedures,” humor writer Amy Collier shares a piece to both keep trolls occupied and to normalize talking about abortion. Very fun fake procedures include: “Fill a hot bath. Lower your face into the water and list everything you like to do in your free time. Bathe in this as the pregnancy exits through your pores.” And “Note the numerical imbalance between the number of male and female biographical Wikipedia articles. Read Wikipedia sections of every famous man’s wife or mother. Your female body will shut down pregnancy upon finding that women haven’t had lives of their own throughout history.”

Because I had my “geriatric pregnancy” birthday this year (I turned thirty-five, an “advanced maternal age” when pregnancy is considered “high risk”), I was pleased to read Casey Rand‘s “Terms & Conditions of Your Egg Freezing Groupon” and all its ingenious satirical stipulations like: “(ii) If [eggs] not thawed within five years of freezing date, then Later Baby® will assume Groupon Holder has not found ‘The One’ and will ship eggs to an international storage facility in Kiev, where they will be donated to infertile Ukrainian women in exchange for foreign intelligence. Groupon Holder can extend the cryopreservation period by providing evidence that she is making headway on Hinge.”

(N.B. Pieces not listed in this internet post are listed in my heart.)

 

Cortney Lamar Charleston, poetry editor

The first time I read Cameron Awkward-Rich’s “Anti-Elegy” I had a visceral reaction to it. The thoughtful use of a sectioned structure (and the space between them) floats the language above what feels like an ocean of silence; in that silence so many unspeakable acts are occurring, but the poem, through careful diction, surfaces them for us all to witness. Considering the subject matter, the text is chillingly calm, but that chilling sensation is what has made it sit with me all year.

And thinking along the successful use of space in pomes, I turn, also, to Quenton Baker’s wonderful series from Ballast. The poems are a wonderful meditation on Blackness (with a capital B!) and the lived condition of the descendants of slavery. The poems themselves are concerned with interiority but manifest visually as fragments, like driftwood, buoyed on a broad white expanse, a sea. It feels a well-considered decision given the images ballast conjures within this context.

One other poetry feature from 2019 that I want to especially acknowledge is that of Uma Menon. If you’re looking for further proof that the youth are the best of us, look no further. These poems demonstrate an insight that is well beyond the years of the poet, deftly handling themes of lineage, history, colonization and culture within tightly confined spaces. The language is so delicate, you have no choice but to grant these poems the care they deserve.

Lastly, I wanted to shout out the “Welcome to South Bend” comics by Kelcey Parker Ervick. They were all delightfully illustrated and delightful to read. If you must ask me where to start, I suppose I’d say “A Weekend with the Boot Edge Edges” since it provides some nice levity to the very important debates we’re having across the country heading into the 2020 Democratic Primaries.

 

Karissa Chen, fiction editor

“Rumpus Original Fiction: Forty-Six” by Amy Neswald
I love how age becomes a character here—a character that looms over the rest of the story.

“Rumpus Original Fiction: Mr. Burley” by T Kira Madden
There’s a strangeness and tenderness to the way the child in this story sees the world that absolutely delights me.

“Rumpus Original Fiction: The Christmas Party” by Mina Seçkin
The tension in the friendship between the two women—one, a Turkish Muslim woman and the other, a white woman—is something I don’t encounter in stories often, and this writer does such a great job capturing it.

“Rumpus Original Fiction: Where to Find Him” by Annabel Graham
I love this story of a drug addict trying to find comfort in the world. Beautifully written, without judgement.

“Rumpus Original Fiction: Em” by Johanna Dong
This piece, about siblings who have been orphaned, has a little bit of everything I love in a story: a touch of magic, roots in particular family history, and complicated relationships.

 

Carolina Ebeid, poetry editor

“Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Bettina Judd”
We published three parts from a longer series of poems about the orca whale known as Tahlequah (or J35) who carried her dead calf for over two weeks in a show of anguish. Judd’s work, with its chant-like repetitions and inverted syntax, gives us the sense that this speaker has been the one elected to perform the mourning work, which is the work of translation into human terms an ocean-sized and collective grief.

“Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Aria Aber”
Sometimes you encounter a poet who feels like kin of the imagination. For me, Aria Aber is such a poet, even if our stanzas sound nothing alike. I recognize an attraction within her work to both the ornate and the austere, a rush to the lush etymologies of languages, as though her attention to a single word can whittle it down to a small devotional object you carry in the palm.

“8th & Ingraham” by Taylor Johnson
We published Taylor Johnson’s prose poem on day 29 of National Poetry Month 2019. The poem recalls for me a marvelous and complex contraption like a Rube Goldberg machine (with its intricate moving parts) that once is set in motion, performs a simple job at the end. Through its lyrical convolutions, Johnson’s poem reveals a broken ecology that exists in any American city under capitalism.

 

Eve Ettinger, features editor

“Afrofuturist Triptych for My Mother” by Delali Ayivor
I remember how much I liked reading this essay in Submittable, and I was not disappointed with the direction it ended up taking between submission and publication. The language is just really good—the turn of phrase Delali employs is exquisite and surprising. The tension in her relationship with her mother is palpable.

“Free Indirect Suicide: An Unfinished Fugue in H Minor” by Seo-Young Chu
The haunting cyclical nature of this essay as it unfolds and you learn more about the ghost of the narrator’s aunt who killed herself and how that legacy works on the narrator as she deals with her own depression is both symphonic and beautiful to read, and also relatable on an experiential level. It’s a beautiful, terrible depiction of this mentality, this experience.

“Split Chins, Open Coats” by Anna Leigh Knowles and “Days Since Last Workplace Injury” by Clancy Tripp
These two essays about the fragility of the protection teachers are able to offer their students really hit home for me as I’ve been teaching again this year. Both are visceral with the narrators’ awareness that they are on the edge of falling apart themselves and yet both narrators try to gather themselves up to offer some kind of shelter to the children in their classrooms, in their care.

 

Lisa Factora-Borchers, senior features editor

“Hurry Up and Wait: Literary Community Is a Platform” by Kim Perel
More times than I can remember, I get emails asking for writing advice when, really, the issue isn’t about writing at all. It’s about “getting big,” “making it,” “blowing up,” or something along the lines of how to increase one’s visibility in the literary and/or media world.  What I loved about “Hurry Up and Wait: Literary Community Is a Platform” is that it is a more soulful response to the endless pecking question of how one flourishes in the literary world. This takes on platform but also pulls something else into focus: the truth is that “a platform doesn’t live outside of you. It is you.” This piece sheds light on what so many writers don’t understand about a “platform.” It can be so much more than drudgery. It can be prescriptive, curated, and even sanitized, but if you really want to use it to connect with others, the old advice parents whispered in our ears when we went off to kindergarten still reigns: Get out there and just be yourself.

“On Crossing Over” by Sharline Chiang
This piece is one of the most human ways to explore the haunting and horror of the viral photograph of a twenty-three-month-old toddler, Valeria, whose arm was wrapped around her father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, as they tried to cross the Rio Grande and drowned in their attempted migration. Paired with stunning watercolor art by Suan Ito, the particular writing style that Sharline Chang incorporates—a vacillation of missives, alternating letters addressed to the author’s own children and Valeria—reflects the psychological battle that we should all endure when faced with such a shocking image. We superimpose those from our own lives with those who died, and inside the folds of our conscience, that’s where we meet the reality of our political crisis. Chang righteously and creatively reports from the undeniable outrage, guilt, and apology we all carry.

“Sometimes I Wonder if God Really Fuck with Me like That” by Frank Johnson
I’m always on the lookout for poetry that takes God on in a way that simultaneously compels and disorients. Maybe that’s because that’s how I experience both God and poetry. And like a prayer answered, here comes Frank Johnson with S”ometimes I Wonder if God Really Fuck with Me like That” and I am left stunned in its wake. Is it the poem’s deceivingly subtle power? Or the way Johnson masterfully corners and fucks with one of the most un-pin-downable topics in all of human history? What I do know is if this is a battle between Johnson and 2019, this poem is a punch to the jaw—a TKO delivered by Johnson. This is the poem, this is the note I’ve been looking for.

 

Claire Rudy Foster, senior features editor

I am an unabashed Katherine D. Morgan stan, so I nominate “On Being Seen in Toni Morrison.” Katherine’s voice transports me: her honesty is both supple and vulnerable as she navigates the desire to be seen and what literature makes possible for black women.

I was also moved by Leigh Hopkins’s essay “Turning Purple: The Borderland.” All true things happen at borders: borders are the best and worst of us, the places where meaning clarifies. Leigh’s essay is part parable, part journalism, and entirely moving.

 

Janet Frishberg, assistant interviews editor

“The Mentor Series: Allie Rowbottom and Maggie Nelson” by Allie Rowbottom
As one of the many readers who loved and was changed by reading Bluets, it was so affirming to hear about the publication process for that book. Nelson’s honesty and advice to Rowbottom about sustaining a writing career over many works was everything I needed to hear.

“The Luxury of Choice: Talking with Joanne Ramos” by Sara Lippmann
This interview stuck with me, in part because I love hearing about the process for writers who change industries. I appreciated Ramos’s candor about the industry she’d been in, the sexism she encountered, grappling with class difference, and more in her discussion with Sara Lippmann about how her first novel came to be.

“I Want to Play: Talking with Sam Bailey” by Samantha Irby
I think about the last few lines of this interview every few weeks: “I want to play. I want to be able to explore the human condition for as long as I get to tell stories. Wow, that is such a fucking privilege. Is that bad to want? The world is ending and I want to play. Ugh. Well… that’s all I got right now.” Bailey articulates such an important and strange truth about being alive right now. Is it okay to want to play even as it feels like the world is ending?

 

Megan Giddings, features editor

“Blood Falls: On Self-Harm and Making Pain Visible” by Courtney Cook
I was so impressed by Courtney Cook’s ability to tie emotions, the natural world, and movements in time to a cohesive, memorable whole.

“Rumpus Original Fiction: Mr. Burley” by T Kira Madden
T Kira Madden’s writing is always so alive—images shift like the lobsters in this piece, from beautiful to horrifying to commonplace to strange and back again.

“What Would a Woman of Color Do?” by Julie Sunyoung Chung
Chung pushes back advice I’ve received since I’ve gone to college—when in doubt, do what a white man would do—and critiques, explains, and thinks of further possibilities for women of color in academia, creative spaces, and other places we’ve traditionally not been full members of.

“ENOUGH: Crime and Composure” by Natalie Eilbert
Natalie Eilbert’s essay is poetic, enraging, and an absolutely necessary read.

“Presence: The Heartspeak of Indigenous Poets: Clarissa Mendiola”
I love the mixture of environment, of speaking to larger issues, and of the personal in this poem.

 

Brandon Hicks, comics editor

“Welcome to South Bend” by Kelcey Parker Ervick
Ervick’s “Welcome to South Bend” series tells the story (in episodic, tangential form) of a small city suddenly thrust into the limelight by a charismatic, surprisingly popular presidential candidate.

Mayor Buttigieg does feature prominently in the series, but he is not its sole focus. Rather, Ervick provides us with a snapshot of life in the American Midwest during this time of civil, social, and political unrest—a much welcome perspective, especially for comics, an industry whose focus, due in part to a dearth of publishing options, is too often focused on big-city concerns.

It’s also worth noting that Ervick approaches each installment as a unique piece with its own narrative, format, and visual style. She employs a variety drawing tools that provide each strip with its own look, keeping the series fresh, varied and interesting.

“Spotlight: Girl’s Guide to Personal Hygiene and Cell Decay” by Claire Stephens
This comic explores the relationship with one’s own body like few works I’ve seen before. It faces the existential horrors of aging face on, not through the more typical framework of an older person examining their lost vitality but rather through the perspective of a sixteen-year-old looking ahead to the ripe old age of… twenty-seven.

The story takes us through Stephens’s frantic attempts to make the best use of her youth through intensive make-overs and sexual dalliances, only to come to better terms with herself and her body in the end. Told with wit, humor, and honesty and featuring a striking and clear line style, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

“Spotlight: As Before, So Behind (Redux)” by Ted Closson
A devastating story of loss that probes deeply into a personal tragedy that, while not uncommon, regularly goes unspoken. Closson breaks this convention by making us privy to an intimate conversation between him and his infant son, who died shortly following his birth.

Closson’s language, at once poetic and direct, is complimented by rich illustrations that invoke the real while also imbuing it with the depth of his emotion. All these elements combine to make it one of the most difficult reads I’ve ever come across in the comics medium, and also one of the most affecting. Please read this work.

 

Christine H. Lee, senior features editor

“Free Indirect Suicide: An Unfinished Fugue in H Minor” by Seo-young Chu
I admire Seo-young Chu’s work for myriad reasons. Her work is searing and true in its unblinking specificity—and I appreciate her innovation and successful experiment with structure in this essay. Chu writes difficult subjects, navigates explosive terrain, and explores the impacts of her rape and the complications of her mental illness, all the while making it universal.

“ENOUGH: Crime and Composure” by Natalie Eilbert
What an important essay—Natalie Eilbert addresses Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and the burden of “composure” put upon rape survivors. I so appreciate Eilbert’s breakdown of what it means to be composed, of the gaslighting of survivors, and of her own journey.

 

Chelsea Leu, books editor

I started as books editor midway through the year, and joining the Rumpus community has felt like being enfolded in a very warm, very literary blanket. (And at times, with all the galleys arriving at my door, it’s felt like being buried in stacks and stacks of books.) Here are a few reviews I’ve especially enjoyed editing:

“Love Under Capitalism: Sally Rooney’s Normal People by Michal Zechariah
I was really taken with this review because of the way it meticulously and clearly sets out how Normal People and Rooney’s debut Conversations with Friends conceive of love within a capitalist society—as something that can both be used to create a fairer, more caring society and as a hindrance towards that goal. “To love anyone is to give them power over your happiness, and then hope they use this power with care,” Zechariah writes. This strikes me as both breathtakingly accurate and crucial to remember in being part of human society.

“A Beautiful Silver Screen: Amanda Lee Koe’s Delayed Rays of a Star by Amelia Possanza
I love the way this review ends—with a critique of an otherwise-worthy novel that touches on one of the most important uses of fiction: to imagine the rich inner lives of those who have traditionally been voiceless or ignored. But Possanza puts it far better than I do: “I picked up a novel because I wanted to imagine the pieces of [these characters] lost to history, to witness their doubts and desires, confusions and frustrations, to see them set free.”

“A Gripping, Limited Call to Arms: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments by Gina Frangello
This review is a sharp critique of The Testaments from an Atwood superfan that’s so much more than just a negative review. Frangello laments the lack of psychological complexity in the book’s characters but posits that the book is “more about political activism and our currently apocalyptic cultural zeitgeist than about strict literary merit.” And then she criticizes the book on those grounds, too, by pointing out the blinding whiteness of Gilead. ”Complication is our intertwined future,” Frangello concludes, “and only a glorious and willing complexity can set those most at risk free.” Hear, hear.

“Food in Times of Need: Eat Joy” edited by Natalie Eve Garrett by Jennifer Huang
What I love best about this review of a collection about food and writing is Huang’s own personal stories. The one that hits me hardest: a ten-year-old Huang tries to make instant ramen for her parents and burns herself, and her mom ends up feeding her dinner. “I still remember the plate she used: a plastic one, decorated with cartoons and divided into three sections like a cafeteria tray. She would ask me what bite I wanted. I’d tell her pork, rice, or veggies, and she would give me just that.” May we all be so well cared for.

 

Robbie Maakestad, senior features editor

“How to Name Dead Babies“ by Susanna Childress has stuck with me like no other essay this year. Childress devastates the reader as she grapples with incomprehensible loss in a hauntingly lyric form.

Wren Awry’s “Diner Boys“ has also remained close. Awry examines gender, diners, Bernard Cooper, Rimbaud’s poetry, and the death of artist David Wojnarowicz—this essay is an exquisite layering of argument.

In “Marriage of a Different Kind,” Jaya Wagle tells the fascinating story of her arranged marriage, of leaving India for the United States, of taking big risks, and of the possibility of love.

torrin a. greathouse’s “The Constituent Parts“ delves into a personal history of guns. This is an essay that I now teach every semester because it captures the violence of guns, tying them to suicide in a climactic final scene that I’ll never forget.

 

Ian MacAllen, deputy editor

Kim Perel and I were at the Library—a rooftop bar, not the New York Public—following a book event when we workshopped a new column idea. Kim, a literary agent, would write a column answering reader questions about how the book sausage is made. She pitched the title “Hurry Up and Wait,” a nod to the process of submission to agents, editors, and publishers where patience is essential. A little over nine months later the first “Hurry Up and Wait” published in early December.

It’s easy to overlook the grueling process of how an idea evolves into a column. As an editor guiding this new column into existence, I felt both more in control and a great deal more anxiety than I had in the past working on standalone pieces. For the column to be successful, we needed to build a strong foundation and set parameters to keep the column going. Send your most pressing questions about literary agents and the book publishing process to Kim at [email protected] and your question could end up featured in Hurry Up and Wait’s next installment!

I enjoyed also enjoyed Kelcey Parker Ervick’s visual reportage on Mayor Pete’s rally in South Bend. In “Welcome to South Bend: Mr. Answerpants,” Ervick takes us through a night of Pete Buttigieg answering constituent questions during his quest for the presidential nomination.

Over the summer, Sara Fredman shared this great conversation with Taffy Brodesser-Akner, author of Fleishman Is in Trouble. Their conversation covers Jonathan Franzen, freelancing, feeling successful, and more.

Finally, to leave us on an upbeat note, Mariel Murray’s piece on death, “Mortality Probability,” is enlightening, grim and tragic. The accompanying artwork by David Dodd Lee accentuates the piece’s themes.

 

Amanda Malone, assistant interviews editor

“Reimagining Jesus: A Conversation with Savannah Sipple” by Rebecca Gayle Howard
Howard’s talk with Savannah Sipple about her debut collection WWJD and Other Poems was truly a pleasure to edit. I’m going to be vulnerable with our audience for a moment and admit that I absolutely cried while working this interview. This is a beautiful conversation about queerness, relationships with the body, and the complicated realities of the American South.

“I Want to Play: Talking with Sam Bailey” by Samantha Irby
It’s possible for an interview to be strong but still lack a certain organic chemistry between the interviewer and interviewee—Sam Irby’s conversation with writer/director Sam Bailey is not one of these interviews. It’s lovely to read, not only because of what we learn about Bailey and her amazing work but also because of Irby’s excellent balance of craft and professional questions with fun, just-because questions.

 

Lisa Mecham, senior features editor

One of my poetry teachers, Gregory Pardlo, came into class one day, frustrated, throwing our pages down on the table. “None of you will just say the fucking thing!” he said. “Just say the fucking thing!”

What he meant us: we were writing around what we were afraid to say.

This happens in all of our lives. We are afraid to say the thing. If we say it, we will be embarrassed // ashamed // rejected // denied // abandoned.

I love being an editor because I get the honor of creating a safe space to help writers say the thing. Here are some writers I worked with this past year who took that task to heart:

“ENOUGH: Good Girls Don’t Sing” by Katia D. Ulysse
“Making It” by Krys Malcolm Belc
“My Dream about Loving White” by Erica Dawson
“Undertones” by Anahi Molina

 

Dennis Norris II, fiction editor

“Rumpus Original Fiction: A World In a Box” by Justin Burnell
This story is one of my favorites because it truly reads as though it contains a young man’s entire world.

“Rumpus Original Fiction: The Man From Washington” by Zak Salih
What I love most about this story is its searing portrayal of loneliness, loss, and grief. A powerful piece to revisit, especially during the holiday season.

“Rumpus Original Fiction: Sardines” by Joan Li
This story is fully modern and timely, and there’s a sharp quietness to its psychological insidiousness. Also, Li’s prose is just really beautiful.

“Rumpus Original Fiction: Two Flash Fictions by Andrea Passwater”
For gorgeously stylized writing look no further than these short but formidable gems. Andrea Passwater is a writer to watch—her voices will burrow inside of you.

“Rumpus Original Fiction: Mr. Burley” by T Kira Madden
Is there anyone who writes childhood with such fearless honesty as T Kira Madden? Here is a story in which the writer beckons the reader closer, ever closer.

 

T.L. Pavlich, assistant features editor

I remember the first time, as a trans person, I saw myself reflected in art. Really reflected, not as caricature but as a whole person. It was magical and heartbreaking and solidifying. In “On Being Seen by Toni Morrison,” Katherine D. Morgan reminded me, among other things, of that moment and of the power of representation and community.

In everything I’ve read by T Kira Madden, I have felt, at some point, like she has struck me. Like her words have reached off of the page and slugged me in the jaw in a way that wakes me up. “Rumpus Original Fiction: Mr. Burley” did just that, perfect to the last line.

Reading Aubrey Hirsch’s “Spotlight: The Curse” felt like pressing on a sore bruise, a frustrating ache made acute by Hirsch’s keen narrative and haunting art.

 

Alysia Sawchyn, features editor

“Love in the Belly of the Beginning” by Cassie Mannes Murray
I was immediately captivated with Murray’s language and patterning in “Love in the Belly of the Beginning.” The essay beginnings with what I’d describe as gentle horror— “Some moths have no mouths”—and continues on to parse questions of consumption, addiction, and care. The narrator shows us how she both stays through the difficult times and also finds beauty within them.

“Shadian Incident” by Kaveh Akbar
I love Akbar’s work in general, and this poem took my breath away. I fear to describe it any further would do it a disservice; just give it a read.

 

Brian Spears, senior poetry editor

The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Eve L. Ewing
Eve Ewing’s collection 1919 is an impressive collection: part visual object, part history, part reinvention of Biblical narrative, and so much more. The conversation our Poetry Book Club had with Ewing was one of the more far-reaching and involved of the past year.

“Exploration and Connection: A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz”
It’s tricky to write about for family, even trickier when you’re writing about your minor children, and when you add in that your children see the world in a fundamentally different way than you do, and that you may never be able to understand what they see, what then? It was an honor to talk about with de la Paz about his newest collection, The Boy in the Labyrinth, and delve into this and more.

“Talking Haram Auntie Poetics: A Conversation with Fatimah Asghar” by Levi Todd
Levi Todd’s conversation with Fatimah Asghar is about the anthology she co-edited, Halal If You Hear Me, but it’s also about the role that editors can play in ensuring wider representation in literary spaces—and, it’s a massive shout-out to Haymarket Press, which has become one of the better poetry presses in the nation by empowering their editors and writers to do just that.

“The Last Book I Loved: Re-Reading Dana Levin’s Banana Palace in 2019” by Wesley Sexton
The “Last Book I Loved” series has been one of my favorites since we started it many years ago. So many books are published each year it’s inevitable you’ll miss some. In other instances, a book is published before you’re ready to read it. It’s important to have a space for reexamining books that fall into these categories. Wesley Sexton’s treatment of Banana Palace makes me want to pull the collection off my shelf and read it again with new eyes, and that’s about the highest compliment I can give to a reviewer.

“Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Aria Aber”
I hadn’t read any poetry from Aria Aber before our Original Poetry team selected and ran these poems from Aria Aber, and now I’m very ready to read more. Hard Damage is in my bedside bookshelf waiting for this semester to end.

 

Molly Spencer, senior poetry editor

As I considered the poetry reviews I’d name as my picks for the year, I thought about a quote from Mary Oliver: “Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.” It seems clear from the quote that she was thinking about what poetry is from the vantage point of the poet: not a profession; a basket. More and more, as time and life go by, though, I think of this quote from the perspective of the reader: What happens when we bring not just our minds, but our lives, to a poem, to poetry? What happens when we put our days and memories and scars and joys to a poem, when we put our lives in the basket of a poem, of poetry? That great rumble you hear is the New Critics spinning in their graves, but as I’ve put on miles in this life, I’ve become less and less interested in dissecting a poem objectively and more and more interested in bringing all of myself to a poem and seeing what the poem has to say to me, today, about my life.

As it turns out, the picks I’ve made are all pieces that the writer has brought their lives to. Wesley Sexton’s piece, “The Last Book I Loved: Re-Reading Dana Levin’s Banana Palace in 2019,” reexamines Dana Levin’s collection in the time of Trump. Banana Palace came out in October 2016, and Sexton points out that reviews at the time “heralded Levin’s poems as thought-provoking hyperboles of modern times.” Since then, however, Sexton writes,

we have experienced one of America’s strangest elections, numerous devastating climate reports, shocking data breaches, investigations into social-media related scandals, and an aggressive ideological shift that prioritizes power and prosperity over justice, sustainability, and equality. In the context of the these developments, the poems in Banana Palace appear disturbingly less hyperbolic and thought-provoking and significantly more prophetic and cautionary. What appeared first as imagination and conceit has materialized as reality, and we have come to live in a world resembling speculative literature. In such a context, Dana Levin’s particular apocalypses deserve another look.

In reexamining Banana Palace, Sexton’s piece makes an implicit argument for returning to a text and reflecting on what it has to say now versus viewing it only as a product of the times in which it was written and released.

At a more personal level, Carla Sofia Ferreira brings her life as a child of Portuguese immigrants and her youth in the Ironbound, a neighborhood in Newark, to Marina Carreira’s debut full-length collection in her review, “Making Absence Present: Save the Bathwater by Marina Carreira.” Ferreira writes that, in particular images, and in the “absence made present” of saudade that runs through the collection, “I see Carreira and I see myself, at once domestic and foreign within American culture, at once belonging and out of place, and both of us risking what we can to hold onto the grandmothers whom ‘we will never know,’ certainly not in the way we long for.” This kind of reading—the kind that brings a life to a text, and, in doing so, encourages us to do the same in a spirit of shared humanity and empathy—seems important as our country’s leadership tries to strip away the humanity of certain groups of immigrants and imprisons them at the border.

And now, a final way of bringing a life to a text: admitting to what some might view as our shortcomings as readers. Risa Denenberg has been a regular reviewer for The Rumpus, churning out her thoughtful and heart-full assessments of a wide range of poetry collections. In “The Brink of Unbearable: Careen by Grace Shuyi Liew,” Denenberg confesses, “I have given a great deal of thought over the years to associative leaning poetry, because so much of contemporary poetry is highly associative—and so often I feel like I just don’t get it.” After all, she writes, “my main gig is as a nurse. I don’t have an MFA.” This supposed lack (which I would argue is not a lack at all) allows Denenberg to engage genuinely with a text she finds difficult. In doing so, she models this option for all of us: to read outside of our comfort zones with a beginner’s mind; to pay attention to our experience as readers, even if we don’t always know what a text means. “In some ways, I think [my background] makes me a good reviewer of contemporary poetry, because I have not been swayed by its dissection in the classroom,” Denenberg writes. And while I wouldn’t want to do without academic discussions of poetry entirely, I agree, and I’m grateful for her willingness to grapple with that which is difficult to grasp.

 

Monet Patrice Thomas, interviews editor

“Our Daily Bread” by Karen Maner
A powerful piece about what we do for love—or what looks like love.

“Pull Up a Chair: A Conversation with Tyrese Coleman” by LaToya Jordan
The ease of this conversation belies how many thoughtful gems are dropped by Tyrese Coleman within it.

“Galaxies in Houston: A Conversation with Bryan Washington” by Ruth LeFaive
This is one of those interviews as an editor that makes me hum with pleasure; it’s that good.

“The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #196: Alan Chazaro” by Rochelle Spencer
Our mini interviews are significantly shorter than feature interviews, but they still pack a punch. Rochelle Spencer’s interview with Alan Chazaro is a perfect example.

 

Kelly Thompson, Voices on Addiction curator/editor

“Free Indirect Suicide: An Unfinished Fugue in H Minor” by Seo-young Chu
Seo Young Chu’s hybrid essay is a brilliant rendering of intergenerational trauma in the context of being a first-generation Korean American whose language is erased, her voice silenced; this is a piece I return to again and again. Her “multiple choice” for the language of suicide ends with zero but the selection “H: is now beyond any language we know” reflects the brilliant invention of poetics this piece represents.

It is difficult to choose from “Voices On Addiction,” as we had a stellar year of offerings from across the addiction spectrum, including poetry and interviews alongside essays. After much reflection, I settled on Andres Chulisi Rodriguez’s “Happy Birthday to Me” and Connie Pertuz-Meza’s “They Call It Spirits,” two of the essays curated by guest editor and my friend, Vanessa Mártir. Martir’s life work centers the marginalized and underrepresented, brown and black, poor and working class, immigrant and second generation, LGBTQ voices that need more representation in all areas, most especially in addiction literature.

Rodriguez’s “Happy Birthday to Me” reveals the hard surrender it took to get him to rehab: “There I was, this brown, six-foot-tall gay man who looked like a cadaver, unbathed and at just one hundred and twenty-five pounds, sitting on a stoop with no connection to family nearby, and I was about to celebrate my birthday, alone.” Rodriguez takes us full circle to celebrate twenty-five years of sobriety as a black gay man.

Pertuz-Meza’s essay “They Call It Spirits” renders the impact of parental addiction on children and families as she recalls her Papi’s struggles with alcoholism. In Pertuz-Meza’s story we clearly see the role of shame and how it can define us unless we turn and face the illness of addiction.

 

Liz Wood, features editor

“The Mania of Queer Desire: in Praise of Fever Ray’s Plunge by Logan February
This essay succeeded in the often tried but seldom achieved art of matching an essay’s form and feel to the music it attempts to describe. The personal narrative is moving, clear, and compelling; the descriptions are lyrical.

“Notes of Dissent: Lessons from a Family Volvo” by Imran Khan
The tension between a parent’s belief in free speech and concern for their children’s exposure to destructive ideas is something I find resonant right now. Here, the author’s conclusion that he must trust his children more—that they are more capable of calling bullshit than he ever was—gives me some small hope for the future (which is something we all very much need).

 

Michelle Zamanian, assistant features editor

“Inauguration Day Root Canal” by Elizabeth Horneber
I’ve had the privilege of hearing Horneber’s in-progress essays at local reading events, so I was excited when I saw “Inauguration Day Root Canal” published in January. Her voice is distinctive; she always finds a way into a deeper truth I didn’t know I needed, but can’t manage to live without after reading it.

“On the Futility of Defying Extinction” by Christina Yoseph
Yoseph write about the terrible pain of losing the language of her family as the Assyrian language becomes endangered worldwide. The homogenization of language is a global issue and as deeply personal as all aspects of cultural preservation. I am honored to have been an early reader of this important essay.

“Parellel Planes: The Ghosts of Mothers and Daughters” by Becky Fine-Firesheets
This essay floored me from the very first read; it both haunts and illuminates. When I think about the love and heartbreak within this writing, it brings tears to my eyes.

***

Feature image by Liam Golden.

Additional image credits (in order of appearance): ENOUGH logo art by Luna Adler. “Sabbath” art by  Natasha Donovan. “Spines of the Finwomen” art by Lizz Ehrenpreis. “Terms & Conditions of Your Egg Freezing Groupon” art by Kaili Doud. “Rumpus Original Fiction: Em” art by Dara Herman Zierlein. “Days Since Last Workplace Injury” art by Dmitry Samarov. “On Crossing Over” art by Susan Ito. “What Would a Woman of Color Do?” art by art by Leesa Travis. “Free Indirect Suicide: An Unfinished Fugue in H Minor” art by Briana Finegan. “Mortality Probability” art by David Dodd Lee. “Rumpus Original Fiction: Mr. Burley” art by Dara Herman Zierlein. “They Call It Spirits” art by Eva Azenaro Acero. “Parellel Planes: The Ghosts of Mothers and Daughters” art by Clare Nauman.