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The Problem With Confessional

Mar 27 2015

By Tom Kelly

When does confessional poetry become unwarranted? When does it slip into indulgence and melodrama rather than the divulging of a secret worth sharing? Of course, the answers to these question are subjective and likely contingent on the bias of the reader. Some critics find great merit in a well-crafted confessional poem. Others would have you think that the age of confessional poetry is outright dead. Either way, this approach to writing poems is provocative insofar as most readers have formed opinions about it. Many of them are quite polarizing.

Amid all the loud voices blaring diehard stances for and against confessional verse, I try to approach poetry somewhat sympathetic to the reader, yet still aware of my more critical duty as an audience. Part of my struggle with confessional poems involves the sheer amount of bias with which I so often approach them. Admittedly, if I read a tell-all poem by an author I’ve never been exposed to, no matter how well-crafted it is, finding adequate appreciation for it becomes difficult. A lack of familiarity with the author forces me into an automatic state of disinterest when approaching their “personal” poems. The sheer act of writing the poem in the first place seems a bit pretentious of the author—as if their life is so important they believe people should be compelled to read about it. This is exactly where my bias and hypocrisy enter.

Give me a poem that tells a personal secret by an author of merit—someone who’s published several books that I deem moving and/or entertaining—and my attitude changes completely. I’m with the established poet’s confessional work through cancer and divorce. The unknown poet’s work may be just as craft savvy. It may cover the same sort of content in a manner that’s just as entertaining. But I cannot find the same appreciation for it, as the author’s personal life has failed to pique my interest.

The idealist may hope the language in a confessional poem is strong enough to make the reader care. The more optimistic part of me believes that it can. Yet, speaking as someone who reads large volumes of poetry daily, so often by authors unknown to me, confessional poems remind me of the stranger at the party who introduces him or herself with a tear spattered, hour-long recap of their traumatizing high school experience. I want to empathize, but I’m too taken aback by the gesture.

On the other hand, if an author I’m familiar with spills their guts to me in a poignant manner, I’m appreciative. For better or worse, I feel that as a reader I establish relationships with authors. I can be moved by an author who divulges a deeply personal secret to me. But it’s probably not happening upon introduction. Is this problematic? Absolutely.

Familiarity with a writer and authorial merit should not affect my interest in their work, nor should it make me more receptive to their confessional poems. But, again, I read with bias. We all do, to various degrees. In an ideal literary community, one would never have to earn a more welcoming reception to their confessional poetry through means beyond the page which contains it. But there are many readers like myself and quite a few of them edit lit magazines.


Tom Kelly loves brunch just as much as the next jaded post-millennial. When he isn’t busy with MFA grad school business, he enjoys playing Tinder, OkCupid, Instagram, and Dragon Age Inquisition. He lives on a steady diet of pizza, black coffee, and Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. He is a Libra, INFP, and counter-phobic loyalist. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 94CreationsFreezeRay Poetry, and SplitLip Press’ Utter Foolery: Best Global Literary Humor 2015.



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2016 Pushcart Nominations

Nov 18 2014

Barely South Review is proud to nominate these five works for the 40th annual Pushcart Prize:


“What the Fire Takes” by Hans Klein, Spring 2014


“Never Get AIDS” by Greg Marshall, Fall 2014


“Between Panic & Desire the Blades of Our Bodies” by Michael Schmeltzer, Fall 2014

“The Universe Goes Dark”
and “Slipping on Sidewalks as an Act of Divination” by Ellen Kombiyil, Fall 2014

Special thanks to all our submitters, who gave us an amazing pool of work to choose from, and best of luck to Hans, Greg, Michael, and Ellen.

- Michael Alessi, Managing Editor

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On Sue William Silverman’s “Cannibals”

Oct 31 2014

When I studied history I really got to know archives, places that exist for almost no other purpose than discovery, pleasure. The Dominion Review, which held a formidable place in the literary landscape of the 90s, went under several years before the founding of Barely South Review, but we hadn’t consciously reached back to reclaim our journal’s heritage until recently, when managing editor Michael Alessi combed through the special collections at Old Dominion and the University of Wisconsin for old issues of The Dominion Review; as part of an effort to showcase the illustrious heritage of Barely South Review, we will be reprinting some of the stories and poems originally published in the pages of The Dominion Review over a decade ago.

“Cannibals,” by Sue William Silverman, will be the first such story in the series. This approximately four-thousand word story concerns the obsession of an overweight bowling alley attendant, Gregory, for Sheila, a regular who, “before the rape,” had bowled with friends; now, “[s]he always bowled alone.” The ominous repetition “…of the rape” (“before…”; “because…”; etc.) consistently lends a dark cast to the already gothic urban landscape of lonely bowling alleys and apartment blocks in New Jersey, just across the Hudson from glittering, glamorous Manhattan, an unattainable symbol of hope. The story follows Gregory, through whose gaze we get Sheila, wire-thin, hurling bowling balls down the lanes. Gregory’s interest in Sheila becomes our own interest; his curiosity about her eye patch, our curiosity. Gregory feels associative guilt for Sheila’s rape, especially as it happened in the bowling alley parking lot. He could have this, he could have that, he thinks. Since the rape, Gregory hasn’t been able to eat. As his obsession amplifies, the intrigue surrounding Sheila—her eye patch, the knife she now carries, her routines and ascetic thinness—increases in equal measure, until Gregory takes decisive action—involving benevolent Sweet & Sour Pork—a classic—and a house call.

My favorite aspects of Sue William Silverman’s “Cannibals” involve the moody environment of West New York, NJ she builds throughout the story—twilit, industrial (or post-industrial), urban, austere. Almost every scene takes place at night: in the “evenings” Sheila comes to bowl, at “midnight” Gregory gets off work. Besides their lonely tenements and the bowling alley, the only other locales are a late-night diner (“Daisy’s”), a Chinese takeout restaurant (“The Blue Lantern”) and a wistful scene in an idling car atop the Hudson palisades after midnight. The effect, in “Cannibals,” is a picture of human beings stripped to carnality —nourishment, sexual desire, entertainment—and the inevitable intersection and enhancement of these urges in the face of nothing else.

But, as LeVar Burton always says, Don’t take my word for it. You can read Sue William Silverman’s “Cannibals” for yourself in the Fall 2014 Issue here.


Caleb True is an MFA student at Old Dominion University and Assistant Editor of Barely South Review. His fiction has appeared in Sonora Review, Whiskey Island, The Madison Review and many others. Find him online at Calebtrue.tumblr.com.


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Rediscovering Karen Lee Boren’s “Seeing Red”

Oct 31 2014

I could not have anticipated what a pleasure it would be to read through past issues of The Dominion Review and rediscover Karen Lee Boren’s short story “Seeing Red,” first published in our thirteenth volume as the 1995 prize winner for best fiction. We set out hoping to spotlight exemplary work from our publication’s history, but Boren’s work is more than just exemplary. She has given us a gift – a story that turns heartbreak into an affirmation of the artistic impulse towards expression. We owe a special thanks to Karen and the editors of New Rivers Press for granting us permission to reprint this story in advance of its appearance in her forthcoming collection, Mother Tongue.

“Seeing Red” begins and ends with the jilted heroine, Charlie, scrawling a public message aimed at her cheating ex-boyfriend. The first is an angry slur on the wall of bar bathroom, the second a kiss on the corner of his lipsticked windshield. In the space between these two acts, the story explores Charlie’s history with sexuality, the breadth of her ex’s infidelities, and her attempts to salvage or invent a new identity for herself, something she can live by. Boren understands how rejection and heartbreak affect us – how such pain can sever the ties to who we thought we were, force us to question our own value and shed the illusions that prop us up – but her story transcends this pain through the discovery of expression: the title refers both to Charlie’s anger and the climactic moment when she looks at the smear of lipstick on her ex’s windshield and recognizes herself in the mess. “Seeing Red” is about, among many things, the value of artistic gesture.

Throughout the story Charlie struggles with her lost sense of identity. Walking listless and depressed through a crowded street she finds that even at eye-level most people prove indistinguishable from one another. She marvels at the few that appear “more realized, more present” like leaves on a tree that “have caught the sun and turned themselves deeper green than the others.” She envies their individualism, even as she thinks of herself as too subdued to share in it. Boren is fearlessly attuned to the emotions of her characters and has enough assurance in her story-telling to foreground these feelings and keep Charlie wrestling them on every page. It’s a tightrope act – exploring the facets of Charlie’s grief and anger and letting them guide the narrative without shirking plot, and it speaks to the depths of empathy within Boren’s writing. She charges even the smallest gestures with revealing attitudes, be it how a character hides inside a pair of sweatpants or throws away a condom. As she writes of one character’s smile: “It represented the whole man to her, like a seashell carried home from the shore and placed on a shelf as a remembrance of the entire ocean.” The same can be said of Boren’s talent for writing small but significant actions that hint at her characters’ inner lives. She gives readers seashells that suggest oceans.

The morning after Charlie slurs her ex on the walls of the pub bathroom she visits a Metro stall and finds the name of a previous woman etched under the toilet paper holder. The signature inspires her to add her own name to stall, shucking the pettiness of the night before until only the underlying earnestness remains. It’s this earnestness the story plumbs, her need to reclaim her name. Identity is expressive, oftentimes in a way that must transcend language, and art, even in its most simplified form, can be a mode of self-discovery. The content of the message pales in comparison to the gesture itself: “No date, no heart, nothing that will mean anything to anyone else who might bother to take notice, except that Charlie was here and declared her presence.” It’s the act of writing that awakens her.

You can read “Seeing Red” in its entirety as part of our Fall 2014 Issue here.

- Michael Alessi, Managing Editor

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Nonfiction Contest Extended Until March 21!

Feb 22 2014

Old Dominion University

The MFA Creative Writing Program & Barely South Review



are pleased to announce

The 2014 Norton Girault Literary Prize in Creative Nonfiction

The Norton Girault Literary Prize, which alternates genres on a yearly basis, will be offered in 2014 for CREATIVE NONFICTION. Entries can be of any form of nonfiction (memoir, essay, reportage) up to 25 pages (double-spaced, 12 point font, one-inch margins all around). The Entry Fee is $15. Multiple entries can be submitted individually, with a $15 entry fee for each. Prizes are as follows:

1st Prize: $500 and publication in Barely South Review

2nd Prize: $250 and publication in Barely South Review

3rd Prize: $100 and publication in Barely South Review

The Norton Girault Literary Prize is named after Norton Girault



And we are delighted to announce the

Judge for the 2014 Norton Girault Literary Prize in Nonfiction:

Claire Dederer is the author of the bestselling memoir Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, which has been translated into 13 languages. She has written essays, criticism, and reported pieces for the New York Times, Vogue, New York magazine, The Nation, Slate, Salon, and many others. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Labor Day, forthcoming in 2014 from Farrar Strauss and Giroux. She lives on an island near Seattle with her family.


  • Entries must be sent electronically through Submittable (go to https://barelysouth.submittable.com/submit and look for “Norton Girault Prize” under the categories)
  • This international prize competition is open to all writers who write in English, except MFA Creative Writing students at Old Dominion University. No translated works will be accepted.
  • All submissions must be original and previously unpublished (print, blog, or web publications included).
  • Format and Manuscript Length: A clean, typewritten or computer-processed (12 point font, double-spaced, one-inch margins all around) copy of the entry must be submitted.
  • Entry must be paginated, and have one (1) title page (see bullet below) with no identifying author information on the manuscript pages. Each entry must not exceed 25 pages in length.
  • Entrants may submit more than one piece to the competition, as long as an entry fee of $15 accompanies each individual submission.
  • Reading fee: $15.00 US dollars
  • Electronic Submission deadline: 21 March 2014; results announced around the end of April 2014.
  • In the event that the judge does not deem any submissions worthy of the prize, Barely South Review reserves the right to extend the call for manuscripts or to cancel the award in a given year.

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New Content Coming on Our Blog

Feb 04 2014

Some new content will be coming soon, but in the meantime, check out the archives on our new blog: http://barelysouthblog.tumblr.com/


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From “An ‘Ideal Moment’ with Dustin Lance Black”

Oct 01 2012

We here at Barely South Review are excited about the week-long Literary Festival at Old Dominion University. One of the great benefits of this program is the opportunity to interview attending writers and artists for our annual craft issue. This year we are excited to offer a preview of Amana Katora’s interview with Dustin Lance Black on the blog here. The theme this year is “Words with Teeth,” and I think we can all agree that Dustin Lance Black’s writing has teeth:

If you’re a fan of Dustin Lance Black’s writing for film and television, thank Dostoyevsky. The Academy Award winning writer spent time studying Russian literature before earning his degree from the Theater, Film, and Television program at UCLA. Seeking an affordable creative outlet after college, he began writing. In an interview on the craft, I learned he appreciates truth, jazz, and a good joke. Here’s an excerpt:

Q: How does your ideal vision of what you sit down to write change from initial inspiration to fully realized film or television? Has the final product ever surprised or disappointed you?

Lance: “I can’t say I’ve ever had any project turn out the way I had originally envisioned it and I think—I  know—that’s a good thing. I always say I want to hold on to the ‘why’: why do you want to tell that story, why do you want to tell it right now. That’s what you can’t lose. But how you’re going to do it, who your characters are, what your plot is, you need to be willing to change those things and be excited about changing them. At a certain point when a draft is finished, you have to be willing to kill your precious little babies and continue to refine what you’ve done and get back to the original question ‘why.’ It always turns out your shooting draft is very different than that first aha moment of ‘let’s do this.’ That’s because of discovery, with your research or through executing an outline. You make discoveries and I think it’s best to leave yourself open to those discoveries.”

Dustin Lance Black is the writer of Virginia, Milk, J.Edgar, Pedro, and wrote for the HBO series Big Love. He will speak at 7:30 PM October 2nd, at Old Dominion University as part of The President’s Lecture Series and the 35th annual Literary Festival. Check out the January 2013 issue of Barely South Review to read his full interview.



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Speaking Our Truth

Jun 23 2012

Old Dominion University M.F.A. Creative Writing Program student Wendi White attended the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference in March. She queried a diverse group of women writers on how they have navigated the rocky waters of composing a writer’s life. She spoke with women authors of varying genres and ages about the empowerment strategies they have used to break through the barriers that women writers still experience. These conversations also explored what is needed for women to make continued progress in the profession.

For writers there are three roads that wind toward truth: reportage, lyric imagery, and narrative. While all these roads traverse different landscapes, at their best, compassion for our shared humanity is the destination of each. So though there is great variation between nonfiction, poetry and fiction’s relationship to “facts”, in the end they are all ways to push the pen beneath the surface of experience and ask, “What does this mean?” Pablo Picasso put it this way, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.”

This past March, I had the honor of discussing how writers come to speak their truth with three very accomplished women authors: the nationally acclaimed poet, Dorianne Laux, award winning novelist and short story writer, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and journalist and author of a bestselling memoir, Janine Latus. Though they each write in a different genre, there were striking commonalities across the three conversations; an indispensable teacher, a pivotal text or artist, and an experience that emboldened them to say what they had to say.

In my conversation with Dorianne Laux, a poet whose pitch perfect voice and deep reserve of empathy caused Philip Levine to compare her to Walt Whitman, I asked her what sparked the writing fire in her soul. Without missing a beat, she revealed that Bertol Brecht held that place of honor. She fell in love with drama in high school, studied it in college, but eventually became disillusioned with how actors were always, well, acting. Then she read and saw Brecht’s work, recognizing that he was doing something very different. “I admired how Brecht was speaking his personal truth.” To this day, the power of such truth telling informs her writing.

But being inspired by Brecht was not enough to launch her poet’s journey. At this point, Laux was only writing poems in private.  It took that alchemy of necessity and good fortune for her to publically proclaim herself a poet.  As a single mother, Laux was waiting tables and felt she needed to return to school to be a good role model and provider for her daughter.  She recounts how she chose her academic field: “I am naturally lazy, so I knew I had to pursue something I love. I decided to take English classes because I enjoyed writing and thought maybe I could be an editor or a journalist . . . do something practical with my life and get job writing.”

It was in her first composition class that Laux met the poet and teacher, Patricia Traxler. After being assigned poems to compose, Laux’s professor responded by saying “You know you really excel at the poem, you should write poems.” So Laux recalls,

“I took poetry classes and eventually studied with Steve Kowit, a wonderful poet. He introduced me to all the women poets, and world poets. I didn’t know there were women my age that had children and were writing poetry . . . After I found out about the whole thing . . . the readings in the bookstores, got my first poems published in local magazines, then I realized I wanted to be a poet. “

And though recognition of her talent and knowing that other women in similar circumstances were undertaking a poet’s life helped Laux imagine a life of verse, it was the political courage that poets like Carolynn Forche and Sharon Olds displayed in addressing state violence, racism and family violence, that convinced her of a writing life’s worth.

“I was a single-mother. I was a waitress living in a border town who had seen a lot of domestic cruelty, and who had seen a lot of political cruelty. Forche had the courage to go down to Central America and Olds was so outrageously honest even though she grew up with so many family secrets. (After reading their poems, I understood) people can tell the truth . . . Quietly, in a darkened room with one light on a person, just saying what they have to say.”

Bonnie Jo Campbell, a writer of stories of people and places at the margins of society, took a similarly roundabout route to being a writer, although she confessed,

“All my life I wanted to write but I never let myself. I didn’t want to be involved in something I saw as cruel and competitive because I thought I didn’t have a chance. What does a little farm kid from Michigan have to say? I am pretty tough, but writing makes you very vulnerable with all you have written out there in the world.”

Like Laux’s flirtations with editing and journalism, Campbell could not imagine herself as a novelist, and so she got two undergraduate degrees in other fields: one in philosophy and one in mathematics. She was on her way to a Ph.D. when a math adviser, who knew she still wanted to write, suggested she take a class with author Jaimy Gordon.  Like Campbell, Gordon outlines the human condition through the narratives of people and places that have fallen on hard times. After reading Campbell’s work, Gordon told her, “You have what it takes,” and having someone that Campbell so admired value her as a writer, provided the final push she needed to call herself an author.

It also gave Campbell permission to tell the stories of outsider women: circus performers and the struggling inhabitants of Campbell’s native Kalamazoo for example. In our conversation, I asked why so many of the characters in the her short story collection, Women and Other Animals, are souls just eking out an existence or living on the edge and Campbell responded:

“I want to take the reader to the dark side to show what true resiliency looks like. My women are not victims. They are facing dire and desperate circumstances, but they are survivors. Interesting stories are not about victims but survivors.”

That there is something inside of us that can rise up whole after shattering abuse, that after betrayal and loss, our capacity to love and speak that love can redeem us, certainly makes survivors worthy protagonists. This a literary truth mirrored in the non-fiction work of writers like Janine Latus.

In her New York Times Bestselling memoir, If I Am found Dead or Missing, Latus shares the story of her sister’s murder and her own experience of sexual and relationship abuse. When I queried her about her motivation to reveal such difficult personal stories, she replied:

“I wanted to write a book as important as Are you There God? It’s me Margaret?, by Judy Bloom. It exposed something nobody was talking about. It was so revolutionary then.  If you can write, you can make people consider things they would never have thought of before.

I couldn’t save my sister Amy, so I wrote my book to save the other Amys out there. I wrote it because as Harriet Tubman said, ‘I saved a thousand slaves. I would have saved a thousand more if they knew that they were slaves.’ I did it to create a wedge so dangerous behavior in the beginning of relationships would be recognized.”

And speaking these truths about her sister, herself, and her family’s history took immense courage, but Latus knew she had to tell these stories because they epitomized the dynamic of abuse she wanted to expose:

“I wrote (about what happened to me)so people would recognize  the abuse in their own lives and turn to each other and say ,we need to talk.”

And it is one thing to tell your own secrets but quite another to tell the stories of your family.  Latus called negotiating these waters the one of the most difficult parts of her project:

“Everyone but my father read my book before it was published and almost all of them supported me because they are so incredibly brave. It was also helpful that a magazine article I wrote for Oprah, “All the Wrong Men,” had recently come out and my family members were told by their colleagues that our story was their story too. My family understood the impact the book could have because of the way people responded to that article.”

So with Latus, as with Laux and Campbell, it was clear that chance to make a positive difference made telling a personal truth worth the risk. The act of writing is important, but it is the reader who ultimately concerned the women I interviewed. They write to touch another person’s life through literary truth telling, and if their words are “the best words, in the best order,” these women believe that the world might be better off for their breaking the silence and lifting their pens.

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Congratulations Karim Julien, Winner of the First Annual Norton Girault Literary Prize!

Apr 15 2012

The Norton Girault Literary Prize is named after Norton Girault, who has been a long-time supporter of ODU’s M.F.A. Creative Writing Program, and familiar face in program workshops.

Norton Girault Interview at Prince Books

Thank you to John Henry Doucette for the video.




Judge Cristina García

chose a single winner from nearly one hundred entries:

“Ayida” by Karim Julien

“A haunting, beautifully imagined story that surprises the reader on every page with its arresting imagery and insights. Although the two main characters are quite young, their preoccupations are serious: identity, displacement, rites of passage, death.  The setting, too, is immaculately rendered—and we linger in the unforgiving cold of their remote Canadian home.” – Cristina García


Julien wins $1,000 and his story will appear in the April 2012 issue of Barely South Review, which will go online in its new format April 16th, 2012.

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