Fictional Cafe is pleased to share with our readers an excerpt from a just-published, highly original new work by Jasmine Sawers. Please see our interview with the founders of Rose Metal Press, which follows the excerpt.
The Weight of the Moon
The moon fell from the sky last Tuesday. I rolled her into the shed and gave her some water.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Don’t you worry about it,” I said. I patted her sorest-looking crater. I got some lotion and rubbed it on.
“Thank you,” she said.
Everyone was so worried.
“The tides,” they said. “The rotation of the earth on its axis,” they said. “The migration of the birds, the turning of the seasons, the visibility at nighttime. Where is the moon? The end is nigh. Judgment is coming. Repent.”
They don’t know how she breathed so shallow, or how afraid she was of empty space.
“I just want to stay a little while,” she said.
“I’ll keep you company,” I said.
I rolled her out when it was raining so she could know the rain. I rolled her out when it was cloudy so she could know the gray. I rolled her out when it was sunny and she wept.
I kept the moon in water and moisturizer and conversation. The Earth began to suffer. I tried to keep the moon from finding out, but she knew anyway.
One day she told me she could not bear it anymore.
“I know I’ve caused this chaos,” she said. “I have to go home.”
“I’ll keep you safe,” I told her. “You don’t have to go anywhere. You can stay with me.”
“You’re a good boy,” she said. “I’ll miss you.”
So I tied her to the end of a string. On a breezy day, I took her out and ran until the wind caught her and she soared into the sky. I ran until my thighs burned and my lungs ached. I ran until I could no longer feel the weight of the moon tugging against the line.
Recipe for Constellations
“I measure every Grief I meet” —Emily Dickinson
I once met a girl whose whole body was the color of a sunflower in bloom. Eyes like nectar, palms like butter, teeth like points of starlight. We were in Asphodel Books when our eyes met over a shelf in self-help. Rather, I was in self-help, she was in cookbooks, and she didn’t smile so much as her mouth unfurled as petals do in the first flush of springtime, and the world became brighter around us.
Why would someone like her look that way at someone like me? Me, a stippled sky the color of rainclouds and fading auroras. Me, while other customers in warmer shades craned their necks just to get a glimpse of her. What could I do but smile back?
She raised her book so I could see. Bake Guilt-Free! it read.
“More like bake taste-free, am I right?” she asked, and I heard her wind chime laugh for the first time.
“How much Splenda can one person eat before despair sets in?” I said, and she laughed again. My face hurt. She slid the cookbook back into place and sidled into my aisle. She brought with her the scent of birthday cake. Vanilla, sugar, and snuffed-out candles. She leaned over to see what I was looking at.
“Your Colors Are Not Your Destiny,” she said. She pursed her lips and tilted her head up to look me in the face. “I don’t know,” she said. “You’ve got such a lovely teal, just here.” Her fingertips, more warmth than weight and soft as moth wings, traced the curve of bone around my right eye.
“How do you do it?” I said. She blinked and drew her hand back. At the loss, a burst of mahogany grief crept in tiny tendrils up my neck. “I mean, look at you.” Her, lush and tender and shining in a green sundress. Her, contentment splashed across the canvas of her skin. With the sudden red blazing hot along the bowl of my belly, unstoppable, we hardly seemed the same species.
She wilted and turned away from me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. My thwarted hands, lavender limp at my sides. “I just—”
“You’ve just never seen anyone like me before,” she said. “All one color.”
She turned back around, only to lean into the crook of my neck.
“Where does your happiness live?” she asked, soft. Pink spilled slow over my collarbone. “Will you show me?”
I have to tell you, I brought this girl back to my studio apartment. I held her summer’s day hand in the winter’s moon cup of my own and led her past the labyrinth of books and papers into my bedroom with the secondhand mattress crooked on the floor. I let her peel off each article of clothing I wore, let her pass her hands gently over each patch of watercolor skin she revealed. I let her awe at the sight of me soothe the dull burgundy that threatened at the base of my spine.
Her fingers skittered over the spray of white, purple, and green that dappled my left side.
“When my nephew was born,” I said. “Six pounds, four ounces, two days late and screaming bloody murder.”
She swept her palms over the full swell of pink and tangerine that curved along my right hip.
“When my first love kissed the inside of my wrist,” I said. “I was seventeen.”
She trailed her hands up my stomach and took into them the weight of my breasts. She pressed her mouth to an ocean areola, swiped her tongue over the white crest of a nipple.
“When I read Ishiguro for the first time.” I touched her, finally, stroked trembling midnight fingers through her hair.
Though she was herself still fully clothed, she bore me down onto the mattress. With hands and lips she mapped each graduation, each publication, each love letter, each reunion with a friend, each infatuation, each perfectly executed batch of scones, each book that changed the fabric of my character, each visit to a new country, each dip of my feet into a new ocean, each sighting of phosphorescence, each tangle of my fingers with those of someone I loved, each shooting star.
Afterward, as we lay twined together in the ruin of my bedding, a swirl of gold arose beside my bellybutton. She rubbed it over and over with her thumb.
“Me,” she said.
“Let me see you,” I said. “Please, let me see all of you.”
The afternoon sun threw long shadows across our bodies, made pale the low light of my bedroom. Made my girl a supernova.
I did not ask her to stay. I did not tell her I loved her. I lay in silence with her while her heart throbbed against my side.
“What about this?” she asked after I’d given up hope for a reply. She cupped my jaw and pressed the end of her nose to the swath of navy that spanned my face, cheekbone to forehead. It was, if you looked closely, dotted with points of white.
I breathed her breath. I closed my eyes against the light of hers.
“The end of friendship,” I said.
She kissed me there. She kissed me where my father had died, where I’d fought long and bitter with my sister, where the neighbor boy had made free with me. She kissed all my pains, great and small, brown and blue, red and purple, light and dark.
When she was finished, she stood and presented her back to me. I sat up to make my goodbyes, but she raised her arms above her head and said, “Help me with this.”
I stood and pulled the sundress over her head. Her breath came quickly as I traced the sunny line of her neck, her shoulders, her spine.
My hand rested upon it then: a star with countless points at the hollow of her back. Hot to touch, it churned every color I’d never seen. Streaks of red blasted forth and faded, cascades of white washed it clean, blue boiled into purple bubbled into brown, mauve and green crackled and burst, orange sparked like embers. This infinite starburst stole my senses.
I had no eyes, no ears, no tongue or nose or hands. Caught in its gravity, I became dizzy and hot. I stumbled, but the girl was there, upright, warm, and strong. I shut my eyes and heaved in air. I slung my arms around her waist and pressed my face into her neck, my body to her body, my pulse to her pulse. I felt her shudder in my arms before her hands locked over mine on her perfectly golden belly.
“Does it hurt?” I asked her.
She left my apartment that night, and I never saw her again. Not at Asphodel Books, or in a coffee shop, or on the subway. Our eyes never met across the crowd at a party, we were never set up by mutual acquaintances, we never ran into each other at work. She came and she marked me and she left. This ball of sunshine is hers, you know that. But this white lightning, right here, do you see? That was her, too.
“You look like a nebula,” she’d said when she pulled her dress back on. “You are the light of the universe.”
My princess bruises when I touch her. My fingers alight and she whimpers, skin blooming a dappled purple. She felt that pea through twenty feather beds—how can I fault her, even when my flesh heats and there is no satiation to be had?
I remember the chambermaid my mother the Queen had ordered to stack those feather beds. Over and over through the months I watched her do it, made sure she followed my commands and stacked the beds just so for my delicate future bride.
“That one is crooked!” I would yell, and she, arms lean and hard, would shove the offending mattress to rights.
“Does that please His Majesty?” she would ask, and the words were right but her tone curdled.
“Watch your peasant mouth,” I would say, and with a sneer she would turn away from me to continue her task. I watched the upswept hair at the nape of her neck grow damp until a droplet of sweat grew heavy and trailed glistening down her neck.
What colors does she turn, I wonder, when a man touches her?
Dragon Petal and Lotus Flame Go Home
For Christina Yuna Lee
For Michelle Go
For Daoyou Feng
For Soon Chung Park
For Xiaojie Tan
For Hyun Jung Grant
For Suncha Kim
For Yong Ae Yue
For all the murdered Asian American women who didn’t make the headlines
We have come to take your jobs.
We already stole your neighborhoods and your lovers and all the spots you’d saved for your children at university. Forget about them now.
We are a squall of locusts throbbing across amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty. If you aren’t careful, you will breathe us in. Please: do not be careful. We can’t wait to give you heartburn. You know how we love our curry leaves and chili oil. Kimchee and shrimp paste. The smell of catfish drying in the sun. The shrieks of the suckling pigs at slaughter.
Don’t bother following us home. There are a billion more where we came from.
We know it’s tempting to whet your hungry claws on us, with our bowed heads and our hands pressed together, raised up in supplication. Yes, we are always praying. We fill our mouths with fish heads. We gnash the bones into knives to slip between our prayerful palms.
Every word in our language is “no.”
Born in Buffalo, New York, to a Thai immigrant mother and an Irish-German-French American father who would claim none of those identities, Jasmine Sawers has never been able to shake the hard vowels of a Western New York upbringing, the ghosts haunting the family tree, or the idea that things would be better in a gingerbread house.
Since 2014, Sawers has served as Prose Editor for Osedax Press out of Lexington, Kentucky. In 2018, they joined the staff of Fairy Tale Review. In 2019, they received a Kundiman fellowship in fiction.
Sawers’s fiction and creative nonfiction appears or is forthcoming insuch journals as Ploughshares, NANO Fiction, Fairy Tale Review, The Conium Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, The Offing, AAWW’s The Margins, Barren Magazine, Fractured Lit and more. Sawers’s work has won the Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest and the NANO Prize, and placed in such competitions as the SmokeLong Quarterly Award, the Wabash Prize, The Master’s Review Short Story Award, the Fractured Lit Flash Contest, and the Innovative Short Fiction Contest. Their work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart Prize.
Their debut collection, The Anchored World, from Rose Metal Press, was published October 11, 2022.
“Good art needs to be able to be dynamic, not static, and so we like providing a space for work that hops fences and demolishes walls and does what it needs to do to find its optimal form of expression,” Rose Metal Press founders Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney told Lorraine Martindale, FC’s Editor at Large, in the following interview.
Rose Metal Press specializes in publishing the hybrid genre, supporting new forms of literary expression, and experimental writing. In this interview, Abigail and Kathleen talk about beginning their press, their interest in hybrid literature, and authors working in the genre. Our excerpt above is from their most recently published book, The Anchored World: Flash Fairy Tales and Folklore by Jasmine Sawers.
FC: I’m curious how the two of you met. How did you begin your collaboration that sparked the unique vision of Rose Metal Press?
RMP: We met about 20 years ago now (whoa) in Boston when we were both getting our master’s degrees at Emerson College in the Writing, Literature & Publishing program. We ended up working together on the undergraduate literary magazine, Redivider, where Kathleen was Editor-in-Chief and Abby was Managing Editor. As we collaborated on that, we discovered that we had compatible interests and skills, and also that we had a lot of fun jointly accomplishing tasks. We realized we both wanted to work as book publishers, but not necessarily to move to New York in order to do so. In 2006, we decided to launch our own non-profit publishing house.
FC: What were early days of your venture like, when you were starting out? Was there a strong response from writers and literary types for your particular vision?
RMP: Pamela Painter, a remarkable Emerson professor and flash fiction pioneer, helped us settle on our mission of focusing on work in hybrid genres. She set us off on our first project, the anthology of flash fiction that became Brevity & Echo, encouraging us not to just publish books broadly speaking, but to try to find a niche to fill. We decided that, while we love flash fiction, that niche was a bit too narrow, so we expanded it out to include other hybrids like prose poetry, image-and-text, book-length narrative poems, the lyric essay, and on and on. Pamela Painter also suggested we start our flash fiction chapbook contest, which ran for 12 years (ending in 2018) and really allowed us to immerse ourselves in the short-form fiction world and helped highlight new talent in that part of the field.
The initial response to our mission was immediate and strong—so many authors were writing these projects with a foot in more than one genre, and so many of them were searching for homes for these projects. And so many people—donors and subscribers—were eager to help us produce and distribute this kind of work. Many more people came to know about our mission and books after we published The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara L. Masih and The RMP Field Guide to Prose Poetry edited by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek in 2009 and 2010. It turned out that writers and teachers interested in hybrid genre work were looking for tools for teaching hybrid genres as well as places to publish them. Providing teaching texts and craft guides became an ongoing part of our mission as well as publishing the single-author books: we’ve since published Field Guides to flash nonfiction and novellas-in-flash, as well as a guide to hybrid genres generally called Family Resemblance. We have a new Field Guide coming out in 2023, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature edited by Kelcey Ervick and Tom Hart.
FC: Can you talk about your interest in experimental, non-linear work, and the unique characteristics of the hybrid genre?
RMP: Genre divisions—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama—serve a useful purpose, to be sure, but adhering too rigidly to these labels or categories can leave a lot of great work out in the cold. If a bigger press doesn’t know how to market something because it can sit on multiple shelves, then we love to swoop in and give that kind of work the platform it deserves. Good art needs to be able to be dynamic, not static, and so we like providing a space for work that hops fences and demolishes walls and does what it needs to do to find its optimal form of expression.
For us and what we publish, what characterizes a hybrid genre work is a work that is in its form using the tools of more than one genre. We aren’t referring to genres like romance, mystery, sci-fi, etc., though we are happy to have them in the mix, but places where the form itself is hard to categorize. For example, Sheila O’Connor’s Evidence of V, which we published in 2019, combines flash fiction sections, quoted excerpts from research documents and books from the 1930s, and personal essay fragments to provide a portrait of both the author’s search for her lost grandmother and of the grandmother herself. It’s a story that might have worked as a traditional novel if told a different way, but is particularly affecting and dynamic in the way the fragmentary nature of the book mimics O’Connor patching the history of her family together without ever finding the full truth.
FC: What are your thoughts on how the hybrid form speaks to our present moment?
RMP: Neoliberal capitalism wants to sort everything and everyone into separate, divided lanes and buckets; that’s not ideal because when we’re divided, we stay conquered. Constant categorizing and rigidly upholding those categories can really be a drain on creative possibilities. So many authors searching for the best way to tell a story could benefit from taking an expansive view of form and genre. Hybrid literature loves it when things refuse to stay in their lanes—when authors joyfully and seamlessly combine seemingly disparate elements to achieve stunning new wholes.
FC: We were very excited we could include this excerpt from Jasmine Sawers’ The Anchored World: Flash Fairy Tales and Folklore in the Fictional Café. Can you talk about the book and its relationship to traditional forms of storytelling, and Sawers’ inventive use of language?
RMP: When Jasmine’s book came over the transom in our 2020 open reading period, we were immediately struck by how wonderful it was. We can’t put it better than one of Jasmine’s blurbers, Ira Sukrungruang did: “What is awe inspiring about The Anchored World was not just the beautiful stretches of Sawers’ imagination, not just the poetic precision of their use of language, but the book’s tender mix of stories inspired by a variety of countries and cultures, challenging the tyranny of normality, and creating—really creating—a literature that brings all voices into the fold, a truly inclusive form of literature.”
Like Sukrungruang, we love the clever and insightful play of language with the traditional or original tellings of these fairy tales. It’s a book full of new perspectives on old characters and a whole slew of new characters for exactly our time.
FC: Who were some of your favorite discoveries? How have your authors changed your own view on experimental writing?
Kathleen: Oh, man. It’s so hard to name only a few. But for me, one of my all-time favorites is Maria Romasco Moore’s Ghostographs, which I teach to my Introduction to Creative Writing class at DePaul for the way it jumps off from old photographs to create an entire set of linked narratives that gradually accumulate into a gorgeous coming-of-age story in a mysterious old town. I also teach Del and Sofia Samatar’s Monster Portraits in my Writing the Body class for the way it uses the speculative memoir genre to explore all kinds of questions of race and classification and belonging and self/other and insider/outsider. Students tend to find both of those books super-inspiring, as do I.
Abby: I also find it so hard to pick just a few of our books that have been favorites or moved or changed me, because they truly all have. We only publish a few books a year, so to publish them we tend to be really in love with each one of them. But one of my favorite discoveries was seeing, via the chapbook contest, all these linked flash novellas coming in. I really love that form and we had so much fun putting together our craft guide to the novella-in-flash, My Very End of the Universe. That was a time where a form felt revelatory to me. Another experience like that was with Anthony Michael Morena’s The Voyager Record. To see a book written entirely in fragments that said so much with a few sentences a page I learned so much history from while also being asked to think and feel deeply about that history was pretty amazing. It also made me consider working with connected fragment in my own writing.
FC: Who are some exciting authors working in hybrid forms at the moment, including your own? Or, what are you presently reading?
RMP: We’re extremely excited about our forthcoming author Claudia Acevedo-Quinones’s The Hurricane Book, which looks at the history of both Puerto Rico in general and her own history and her family’s history on the island, and also about our forthcoming author Naomi Cohn, whose The Braille Encyclopedia looks at what it’s like to lose one’s sight as an adult and have to adapt to the new realities and challenges around that kind of change.
Kathleen: Also, I am a huge fan of Chicago author Jessica Anne, whose Manual for Nothing is brilliant. And he’s not really “at the moment” because he’s dead, but literature is a form of eternal life so I’ll add Evan S. Connell whose Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) are novels-in-flash and which are two of my favorite books of all time. I was also blown away recently by the hybridity and brilliance of Margo Jefferson’s memoir Constructing a Nervous System.
Abby: We’ve been really immersed in the editing and production process for The Field Guide to Graphic Literature for several years now, so I’ve ended up discovering and exploring the work of a lot of the contributors in that book. Recently, I’ve particularly loved Mira Jacob’s Good Talk and Kristen Radtke’s Seek You. Both combine graphic work and prose in ways I’ve never seen before, to stunning effect.
FC: How do public events and literary readings shape your press? Have you found a strong community that appreciates experimental literature?
RMP: We have! We always help our authors set up a bunch of events when their books come out, and we’ve found the receptiveness for booking this kind of work has only grown all over the country since we first started in 2006. It’s so lovely for authors to have a chance to connect with readers directly.
FC: Kathleen, you co-edited a book on Magritte’s writings. I’ve always thought of him as a literary painter, and I recently discovered his writing, and love it as much as his paintings. How did the book come about, and can you also talk about your book The Listening Room, which reflects on Magritte from the perspective of his wife and dogs?
Kathleen: Yes! Magritte is absolutely what I’d call a writer’s painter—his titles are so poetic and his images are so suggestive of narrative. My colleague at DePaul and Poems While You Wait co-founder Eric Plattner and I went to see the Mystery of the Ordinary show of his work at the Art Institute in 2014 and were smitten by the wall texts, which we noticed were mostly excerpts of his writing. When we exited through the gift shop, I couldn’t find a copy of the writings anywhere, so I went home and googled to try to see what was available and in doing so, discovered that a translation of his Selected Writings had been supposed to come out in the 1980s, but the project never saw daylight. I was able to track down the only copy of the typewritten translation at a monastery in France and then Eric and I were able to work on editing and bringing it out in English at last from Alma Editions in the UK and University of Minnesota Press here in the States.
The Listening Room came about as I became more and more knowledgeable about Magritte’s life. He and Georgette never had kids, but always had Pomeranian dogs, upon whom they doted, and they always called these dogs Loulou, so I thought: what if I told the story of his paintings from the perspectives of the two people (Georgette and Loulou) closest to the painter? It was the kind of weird twist it seemed like Magritte himself might have appreciated, and it was a lot of fun.
FC: And finally, what do you look for in submissions? And how would one submit work to you?
RMP: We look first and foremost for work that is hybrid not just for hybridity’s sake, but whose form and content are truly harmonious and inextricable. Work that is not just casually but inextricably hybrid. We don’t take submissions outside of our reading periods, and we have open reading periods every couple of years and generally choose 3-4 manuscripts from each reading period. We will likely have a reading period this coming summer, probably around June of 2023. Stay tuned! We’ll have all the details up on our website as soon as the dates are finalized.
FC: Thanks to both of you, Abby and Kathleen, for sharing your thoughts and insights into what you do at Rose Metal Press. It’s been great, and I’m sure our Fictional Café readers will feel the same. ~ L.M.