“A Date Night”: An Interview with Tess Wilson

Interview by Alison Taverna

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Tess Wilson is an Assistant Poetry Editor at The Fourth River Literary Journal. She founded aXa Press, the home to This Time: An Anthology, a collection of alternative space writing, which will debut on April 13th. A Kansas poet and current Chatham University MFA student, Tess talked to The Fourth River about the process of publishing both projects.


The Fourth River: Do you consider yourself a nature or travel writer? How does this affect your approach when working on The Fourth River?

Tess Wilson:
I don’t consider myself a nature/travel writer, but I do consider myself to be a place-focused writer. I think my connection to environment and place stems from the mentality of my hometown. In a small town – where you can’t go to the grocery store without running into fifteen people you know – community is an unavoidable force. Because of this, I tend to write and read poems that address that dynamic and the relationship between a human and its position in the world. As far as The Fourth River is concerned, I think approaching the journal with a passion for place-based writing has made me appreciate and explore that relationship even more, as nature/travel writing deals with community by its very nature, for lack of a better word.
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What’s New at The Fourth River?


Quite a lot, actually, so thanks for asking!


issue 11 release flyer

1.       The Fourth River, Issue 11 Release!

On Tuesday, April 15th, we will launch issue 11, which features poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction from some terrific writers, including Barbara Hurd, Bk Loren, Nate Pritts, and others. Continue reading

Book Review: One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson


528 pgs/ $16.86 hardcover

Review by Ryan Rydzewski

“A most extraordinary summer was about to begin.”
-Bill Bryson

Hundreds of thousands of people gather to watch a New York skyscraper burn. Thousands more crowd Charles Ponzi’s Boston office, desperate to hand their life savings over to an investor who can do no wrong. Yet another airplane falls from the sky. The President, working his usual four-and-a-half-hour day, sits in the Oval Office with his feet in an open desk drawer, watching the window and counting passing cars. One in six people head to the movies. In Mississippi, black workers man their posts at gunpoint as the worst flood in American history approaches. The government, in the throes of Prohibition, lethally poisons batches of booze to deter would-be drinkers. Minnesota considers changing its name to Lindberghia, and bombs explode in almost every major American city.

Welcome to the summer of 1927, beautifully reconstructed by bestselling travel writer and historian Bill Bryson. In his new book, One Summer: America, 1927 (Random House), Bryson tells the story of America at the height of the Roaring Twenties—or, as he calls it, the “Age of Loathing.” It’s a country wild for mass spectacle, where anarchists lurk in the shadows and almost everybody gets rich. Where misfits and criminals run the cities and towns. It’s a country teeming with paranoia and hatred and some of the most fascinating characters ever produced.

The names here are familiar—Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge—but Bryson weaves them together to show an America that was, in many ways, just beginning to come into its own. It’s easy to draw modern political parallels, and readers of One Summer will almost certainly do so. But Bryson himself stays close to the facts, focusing on narrative rather than reflection, emphasizing the surprising and sensational rather than the damning or prescient. It’s as if he wrote One Summer to mirror the fast-paced, gawking ethos of the age—a speeding newsreel that gives only the highlights. Continue reading

Book Review: Before and Afterlives, by Christopher Barzak


Lethe Press, March 2013, 225 pages, $15

Review by Kelly Lynn Thomas

After reading Christopher Barzak’s short story collection, Before and Afterlives, you might find yourself looking for mermaids among the bikini-clad women swimming at the beach, or for a ghost lingering around your kitchen at night. You might even start wondering if the suspiciously friendly newcomer to town isn’t an alien. Barzak’s tales of fantastic happenings set among the mundane trappings of everyday life are that believable.

Out in March 2013 from Lethe Press, the seventeen short stories in this collection range in length from a few pages to two that are just over twenty for a total of 225 pages. But even though this is a relatively short book, it’s not a quick read. These stories demand attention. They aren’t dense or impenetrable, but they are rich and complex, and you’ll want to spend some time with each one. I rarely read more than one story at a time, so that I had time to digest it, to fully appreciate the way Barzak weaves fantastic elements into post-industrial cities and rural towns whose school boards fire teachers for not teaching creationism alongside evolution and think it’s legal.

“Place” in fantasy is often something that can be manipulated, controlled, or escaped. In this collection, though, it is solid, unchanging, and for many characters, inescapable. It plays a starring role in almost every story in the collection, and that focus on setting helps ground the collection and make some of the more fantastic elements seem natural—or, when Barzak wants, unnatural and bizarre in contrast. This ability to both ground me in a place and then completely unnerve me kept me delighted and turning pages. Continue reading



Adam Tavel received the 2010 Robert Frost Award, and his forthcoming collections are The Fawn Abyss (Salmon, 2014) and Red Flag Up (Kattywompus, 2013), a chapbook. His recent poems appear or will soon appear in West Branch, Indiana Review, Zone 3, Diode, Bayou, Yemassee, The Cincinnati Review, and Cream City Review, among others. Tavel is an associate professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

~Interview by Christopher Ruff

The Fourth River: Can you talk about your path as a poet? Not that typical poet’s bio stuff, but the writers, the teachers, and the moments that led you to choose this life of words.

Adam Tavel: One of the biggest influences in my writing life was, and remains, David Hillenburg, my sixth grade English teacher. When I met him, he was only in his second or third year of teaching and seemed like a strikingly irreverent figure among the other hum-drum faculty of my junior high: tall, lanky, with long sideburns and a wacky tie collection. His classroom was idiosyncratic in ways that I’m sure is outlawed now, with pictures of Elvis, a cork board littered with a dozen of Bukowski’s PG-rated poems (though the occasional word was still blacked out with marker, CIA-style), and a large list of behavioral commandments, most of which sought to differentiate the nuances between ‘nose scratching’ and ‘nose picking.’ He wasn’t a rule-breaker and he didn’t incite rebellion, but he did challenge us to think for ourselves and be as creative as possible. Among other things, he had us read The Phantom Toll Booth and Sounder, and he certainly was the first person in my life who seemed genuinely invested in poetry. He was also the faculty advisor for the school’s literary magazine, so we bonded pretty quickly once I showed an interest in writing beyond my mere assignments. I’m glad to note that we’re still close friends all these years later.

Certainly there have been many other influences, too. My mother was an aspiring journalist in college, so I had an early appreciation for language. In college and graduate school, I was blessed to study with more brilliant professors and writers than I can count. Perhaps the most critical mentor, though, was my undergraduate mentor, labor historian John Hinshaw, who was unbelievably patient with me—I would ambush him during his office hours, an essay draft and new poems in tow, and he always took the time to read everything I wrote. Looking back, I’m embarrassed to realize that I consumed so much of his time, especially with material that had nothing to do with his courses. I try to remember these moments now, when my own students sheepishly ask for guidance with assignments for other classes or timidly slide me one of their  poems or stories. Continue reading

CLOSE READING: “The Pastoral Poem in the Broken World,” by Dilruba Ahmed


Dilruba Ahmed is the author of Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press, 2011), winner of the Bakeless Literary Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, and Indivisible: Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. Her writing has also appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review blog, the National Book Foundation blog, and The Kenyon Review Online.


When talking recently with students about pastoral poetry, I thought of “Tarp” by Rick Barot for the mix of “sweet dream” and “rude awakening” that Mark Strand and Eavan Boland note that the pastoral poem can provide. Barot’s poem also provides deeply intimate glimpses of human struggle alongside sweeping global dilemmas with political implications. For any reader– and particularly for students interested in “nature and place-based writing”- Barot’s poem warrants a close look for its complex depiction of the relationship between humans and their environment in the contemporary world.

“Tarp” by Rick Barot

I have seen the black sheets laid out like carpets
under the trees, catching the rain

of  olives as they fell. Also the cerulean brightness
of   the one covering the bad roof

of  a neighbor’s shed, the color the only color
inside the winter’s weeks. Another one

took the shape of   the pile of   bricks underneath.
Another flew off the back of a truck,

black as a piano if a piano could rise into the air.
I have seen the ones under bridges,

the forms they make of sleep…..

Using the sheet of plastic as a focal point, the poet directs our attention to the tarp’s many uses as a helpful piece of gear to catch or to cover in various settings. The tarp can aid humans in harvesting, which is one form of control over the landscape: “catching the rain/ of  olives as they fell.” Barot surprises us with the “cerulean brightness”- not of the sky, but of yet another tarp, this one an attempt to shield one’s belongings from nature’s rain, wind, and snow. The poem reminds us that the tarp is malleable and takes the form of whatever is beneath, whether it is a “pile of bricks” or the human figures “under bridges” to which the poet alludes. With this gesture, Barot shifts from the protection of objects– olives, sheds, bricks–to the human need for protection, warmth, and security. The promise of safety from the earth’s elements seems less convincing in this context, however, as a tarp is likely to provide little comfort for the homeless in harsh weather. With this move, Barot begins to prepare us for a dramatic transition from the tarp’s uses to the tarp’s failures – and to human disappointments.

Broadening his focus from the “thing” (the tarp) to “the category of  belief that sees the thing / as a shelter for what is beneath it,” the poet refuses to permit the reader to hold to any illusions about the physical world’s capacity to protect humans from any level of harm – whether that danger stems from human activity or from nature’s elements.


There is no shelter. You cannot put a tarp over

a wave. You cannot put a tarp
over a war. You cannot put a tarp over the broken

oil well miles under the ocean…..

With four brutal words, “There is no shelter,” Barot dispels any of the “sweet dream” of the relationship between people and their environment with a “rude awakening” to the limits of what humans can or cannot do. The poem’s unconquerable “wave” conjures recent natural disasters – tsunamis, hurricanes, floods – events that have brought into question the impact of human activity on the health of the planet. Without going into detail, the poem points out that there is no item or object imaginable that can solve other human-made problems, including war, a term only used in its most general sense, leaving the reader to conjure all that the word comes to represent: violence, turmoil, injury, grief, loss–the worst that humans have to offer each other and the world. The poem then turns to a specific example of humans’ attempt to control and exploit the natural landscape, a “broken / oil well miles under the ocean”–an image that evokes the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that made history as the world’s largest disaster of its kind. As readers, we are forced to confront the notion that the world’s problems are too large and too overwhelming to adequately address, rendering all solutions as makeshift and useless. With its repetition of the phrase “you cannot,” the poem creates a feeling of bitterness, frustration, and anger, as well as a bit of a rebuke, as though to say, “Look what we’ve done.”

In the poem’s final lines, Barot transitions from his panoramic gaze of oceans, war, and natural disaster to a more intimate kind of disaster, the invisible battles that humans face daily.

There is no tarp for that raging figure in the mind

that sits in a corner and shreds receipts
and newspapers. There is no tarp for dread,

whose only recourse is language
so approximate it hardly means what it means:

He is not here. She is sick. She cannot remember
her name. He is old. He is ashamed.

Here, Barot strips the reader of any possible illusion of safety or protection. Not only do physical items fail to protect us, there exists no antidote to the intensely personal struggles and losses that human face. Not even language can help us. The final lines nearly taunt us with their inability to convey the depths of human dread, using a choppy, child-like simplicity to describe absence, illness, memory loss, aging, and shame.

FICTION: “Polar Plunge,” by Justin Hermann

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Justin Herrmann’s fiction has appeared in River Styx, CutBank, Green Mountains Review, and other journals. His story collection Highway 1, Antarctica will be published by MadHat Press in 2014. He currently lives in Alaska.


I’d been noticing the fish girl around Station for weeks. I’d see her in the early morning hours at the lab, dumping coolers of live fish into seawater tanks in the aquarium, or sometimes she’d be tucked away in a corner doing headstands. I had never been much into fishing, had never much understood the appeal until a few years ago when I worked up in northwestern Alaska and some of the locals took me ice fishing with them a couple times. They’d haul twenty-pound sheefish through their holes with heavy line tied to scrap wood. Women would gut and fillet the fish right on the ice before they froze. I wondered how a science operation here on the other side of the planet compared. I wondered how this girl caught her fish. I wondered if she’d let me come with her.

Mostly I’d see the fish girl at the bar, always alone.  My boss, who is known around here as Donald Duck, always both names, and who I have drinks with most days after work, noticed me noticing her too.

“Hombre,” he told me. “You’ve been away from home way too long.” I knew what he meant by that. He’s seen a picture of my girlfriend, Julie. “Who is Helen of Troy anyway?” he said when I first showed him. Big green and gold eyes like a giant cat, a full set of lips so confident and content they belong on a corpse. She is the most beautiful girl I’ll ever be with. I’d consider myself more lucky if I thought I could keep her. Continue reading

2013 Pushcart Prize Nominations

We’re excited to nominate the following authors and their work for the 2013 Pushcart Prize anthology:

Lisa Summe: “Dream #2″ (poetry)
Sara Watson: “Now Her Dumb Dog Runs Away” (poetry)
Jeanne Wagner: “Prunus suncordata” (poetry)
Colin Rafferty: “The Yellow Flowers” (cnf)
Christopher Cokinos: “At 4 a.m. in the Summer: Hope” (cnf)
Kirk Nesset: “Aethelred the Unready” (fiction)

Congratulations and good luck to all!

Word Circus, 11/22

Friday, Nov. 22
Most Wanted Fine Art
5015 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15224

Presented by the Chatham MFA Creative Writing Program in collaboration with Most Wanted Fine Art Gallery, this free monthly reading series features a mix of poetry and prose writers from Chatham and welcomes YOU to the Open Mic.

Featured Readers:

Chelsea Ardle (nonfiction)
Haley Dean (poetry)
Whitney Hayes (nonfiction)
Billy Jenkins (fiction)


Sean Lawlor

*Please limit Open Mic pieces to 3 minutes (2 pages or 2 poems)

*There will be refreshments & boxed wine, but please BYOB if you want to share something extra!

Coffee Buddha Reading, 11/19

Tuesday, Nov. 19
Coffee Buddha
964 Perry Highway, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15237

Please join us for the final Coffee Buddha Reading of the Fall. Again we’ll feature an evening of fiction and poetry from two writers with brand new books: Micki Myers‘, IT’S PROBABLY NOTHING and Mason Radkoff‘s THE HEART OF JUNE. Come out and help support these writers and, of course, nothing less than the cause of literature. :)

Micki Myers is an artist and writer living in Pittsburgh, where she teaches English and raises her children. She writes the food blog Yuckylicious, is a regular contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and her first book, Trigger Finger, won the Pearl Poetry Prize. Her newest book is It’s Probably Nothing…, a breast cancer memoir.
Micki can be found at www.mickimyers.com

Mason Radkoff lives and writes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His debut novel, “The Heart of June,” was shortlisted for the 2012 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition. Before becoming a novelist, he restored old houses, and still pounds nails on occasion. He does his best thinking with tools in his hands. www.masonradkoff.com