Glass ball sits in a tree branchThe Spring 2020 Creative Writing MFA is an online presentation of excerpts and abstracts from creative writing MFA students’ final thesis projects. Students work on a creative thesis under the direction of a faculty member for at least a year and a half during their time in the program. They defend, present, and red from their theses the semester they graduate.

Graduating Creative Writing Students, Spring 2020: Audi Barnes, Adam Byko, Alicia Ezekiel-Pipkin, Melanie Farmer, Lauren Gagnon, Malcolm Kelly, Dylan Kiely, Caitlin Lochner, Erica Macalintal, Lance Milham, Samuel Oatley, Laura Ohlmann, and David Smithson.

Audi Ashley Barnes

Audi Ashley Barnes
Poplar Trees

Audi Ashley Barnes is a poet and essayist whose work interrogates identity—in particular its intersection with race. “Poplar Trees” discusses the near-genetic memory of fear and persecution that Black people experience on even the most innocuous, seemingly beautiful days. What once may have been considered a positive, even peaceful scene, takes on an insidious view when considered in conjunction with the environment’s historical context.

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south”
—Strange Fruit, as sung by Nina Simone

The soil is clotted with magnolias.
Far, a vendor hawks a bag of hairy
peaches while last week’s souring navel
oranges turn black in the lost gutter.
Breathe in that sickly sweetness. Taste it now.
Trip over those twisted roots that prolapse.
Tell your sons that nice old men and good ol’
boys are not. Tell your daughters: avoid both. Stay:
watch branches swing in a sudden gust and watch the
leaves rip free, hang on air itself: an estranged fruit.
(Are you imagining the straining rope?
Are you remembering his red, bare feet?
Taste his mother’s honeyed tears in your tea.)

Adam Byko

Adam Byko
The Astronomers

Rites of Renewal is a short story collection that explores the question of what happens when a world, a person, or a family is broken in a way that may be past fixing. Throughout this collection, characters face wounds beyond their ability to heal, past sins beyond their ability to redeem. Their environment, their future, their families—everything is falling apart. The doppelganger farm has lost its crops, the family automaton is rusting, and the reverse volcano is threatening to come back together and take all of us with it. The stories in Rites of Renewal are dispatches from characters past their breaking points, facing realities spiraling outside of their control. These characters do not have solutions. They do not have answers. They do, however, have a will to try. The protagonists in Rites of Renewal find their solace in their ability to create something new. What they create will not be the same as what was lost, nor will it be a mended version of what had been broken. It will just be the best that they can grow in barren soil with broken parts. It will also, somehow, if only for a moment, be enough.
It used to be my husband would only disintegrate rarely and in quick flashes. I never even saw it happen until after three years of dating. We were tangled on his futon at the time. Brian’s body pressed down from above, the metal skeleton of the futon up from below. The frame rattled, and I felt trapped in the best way. Then, a smell like melting plastic. Blinding light. The weight that had pinned me down — gone. Breath surged into my lungs, my heart leapt in a pattern of panic, and just like that, the light condensed, and Brian was back on top of me. Even though it was all over in a matter of seconds, I could not get over the shock. “There’s this thing with my family,” Brian explained, after giving up on his efforts to coax me back into position. “Where sometimes we burst apart.” In the coming months I read all the literature. I came to an understanding of what I was about to marry. I knew that it would only get worse, that it was just a matter of time. As the dissolutions became more frequent, as the glow of his body spread farther, stayed suspended a beat longer, I understood that these were bad signs. I would watch Brian come back together slow, like fireflies clustering into a human body, and try to summon my solemnity. I told myself that this was the beginning of an end. I told myself that I was witnessing a tragedy. But, at heart, every time my husband fell apart I could not help but see it as dazzling.

Alicia Ezekiel-Pipkin

Alicia Ezekiel-Pipkin
Dreaming in Dog Years

Run Like a Girl is a collection of essays that examines the manifestations of fear through girlhood and into womanhood. The initial fear of losing her mother prompts in Pipkin a chain of fears: androphobia, horror delusions, body dysmorphia, and mental instability. In the essay “Dreaming in Dog Years,” Pipkin is introduced to “good girls” and “bad girls,” and what such identities mean for her and her mother’s endings according to horror movies. While some girls don’t survive, others are able to run. Pipkin and her mother’s shared obsession—running—is explored from various angles. In “The Sunflower Project” and “Mother Moon & Me,” Pipkin runs in response to fears of an abusive biological father. Essays such as “Run Like a Girl” and “Where There Should Be Blood” acknowledge the pitfalls of endurance running. Pipkin examines societal pressures around weight, social media imagery, and motherhood, and discusses how these pressures affect young girls taught to run. At the heart of the collection is a testament of love. The collection ends with “A Conversation with My Mother’s Journal,” where Pipkin explores mental health and reconciles her antipathy towards her mother through journal entries. The essay provides readers with her mother’s own words, fulfilling her mother’s unrealized aspiration of writing memoir.
“For girls, running is expected. We’re told what we do is run scared; that flight takes precedent over fight. We run like girls. We’re not to be those girls—we’re to be good girls, horror movies’ final girls. Rather than running with the wolves, we run away. We’re to be soft, but hide our softness in turtlenecks and shapeless clothes. We’re to reject attention, and invert into ourselves, into our bones, which build haunted houses of domesticated loneliness. We’re to sustain goosebumps, keeping ourselves alert to dangers those girls wouldn’t see. Couldn’t see. Of our friends, we’re to be quiet leaders because a voice would make us bitches; we’re to outthink the others—out run others—only to turn and watch them, those girls, perish. We were to survive the horror.”

Malcolm E. Kelly

Malcolm E. Kelly
Divine Address from that New-New (Testament)

In Charcoal Boys & Dreams of Fire, the intersection of blackness, gayness, identity and religion are explored and picked apart. The collection revolves around a speaker obsessed with authenticity in the face of dog whistle speech, fetishization mistaken for lust, and a god of love whose presence fosters hate. It juxtaposes nonfiction essays with verse and surreal prose poetry to highlight expression and emotion, embracing rage, coddling pettiness, and shunning apologies for the sake of identity.

You are a god of whispers and echoes,
lower pantheon at best.
Hollow eyes squinting and hunched form,
tacking curses onto the praises you mop across the floor.
You inhale the spice and smoke of my burnt offering,
while pissing over the flame.
Shine marble pillars with the spit of your sucked teeth
while you worship at the altars of my feet. Polish me,
I’m top tier. You string hails and adoration on mint floss
picked from the teeth of better men—and try to stuff my ears.
You convulse in tongues, cry with supple words
you saw etched on someone else’s mind, all while
lifting praises to me like reused balloons.
I am not too good to be true
simply too good for you.
Touch all this skin framed by my limp wrist.
Push your tongue through my stone lips
Tell me you love me before I forget you
You’ll never see me again.
Eternally, Me—your god of Audacity, Fem, Faggotry and Flow.

Dylan Kiely

Dylan Kiely
Song of the Subcontinent

Song of the Subcontinent is a fantasy novel concerning the struggles of rival factions in the realm of Tianxia. Unified by a messianic sorceress known as the White Ape, the yeti tribes of the Northern Steppe have torn a bloody swathe through the ancient kingdom of Samhan, decadent nobles ripped from their stagnant thrones and forced into servitude. With his royal mother dead and the last city loyal to his family put to the torch, shamanic prince Minsun O-Kong flees into the grand rainforests of the south, seeking a legendary hero sworn to serve his family in their time of greatest need; just as his kingdom’s poisonous allies, the kitsune, had intended.

Unknown to the exiled prince, the White Ape has troubles of her own: A reckless son who thinks only of personal glory, a daughter enamored with their conquered servants at the expense of her own people, and the very kitsune who had once advised her enemies now trying to ingratiate themselves to her. The freshly-widowed White Ape finds herself desperately short on people she can rely on, and what she had seen as the end of her legend instead seems only the beginning of her problems.

From Shahar on the southerly tip of the tropical Bharatese peninsula to Samhan’s capital and northernmost city Wang-Ui, the brutality of the winters in the Northern Steppe, called by some the tribelands or simply the waste, was legendary to the point of painting the tundra in the cultural consciousness of the southern nations as some sort of half-real nightmare of snow and ice.

Few in the south spoke of its spring, however, though this season was surely as dangerous as its predecessor. Not only was it the time when the great beasts of the north were at their most active, great bears and wargs and sabrecats rousing from their months long sleep to hunt and mate, but so too did the melting of the snow and ice turn the great plains into massive ponds of mud, patches of liquid earth that could suck a yeti child underneath and smother them before their mother realized they’d slipped from her grasp.

The yeti child who walked among these pools that day knew of these dangers, and she had no mother to hold her hand and pluck her free from the sucking mud. She had asked the sorcerer, Crow Feather, why this was, and had gotten only a confusing tale of blood and screams, of a life taken by the Skyfather that her own could come into this world.

She had long ago learned not to ask her father, Chief Green Teeth. She knew the fang he’d knocked from her mouth would grow back, in time, but she wasn’t going to risk that pain again.

Some distance outside of her tribe’s village, the yeti child found a likely looking puddle. The sun reflected off the stagnant water that rested on its surface, glaring angrily into her sensitive, red-tinged eyes.

Caitlin Lochner

Caitlin Lochner
The Mistress of the Maze

Mistress of the Maze is a novel interrogating the ideas of heroism celebrated in ancient Greek mythology through the lens of two kinds of characters not often given a voice in these myths. A retelling of the Minotaur, the maze, and Theseus, the novel follows a young Ariadne as she struggles to find her place among a family of heroes. As she grows up, she must navigate the grief of losing those she loves, the gradual and seemingly inevitable unraveling of her family, and the many kinds of heroism presented to her—and find true heroism where she least expects it. But in order to save anyone, she must first decide what real heroism means and act on it herself. Even if it means giving up everything she knows and loves to do so.

There is not a soul in Crete who doesn’t know of the monster. Rumors of it pass behind shielding hands, whispered into trusted ears. My teachers in the palace, when they think I am not listening, despair to one another of how only the flesh of man will satisfy its hunger—and that one of its giant fists are enough to choke the life out of even the strongest of Cretan soldiers. What will they do if it escapes confinement? The cooks in the palace mutter to themselves of how it can outrun the strongest-bred horse; that if you should be unfortunate enough to encounter it, you should stand still and hope for a quick death. One of the servant girls claims to have seen it; she tells the tale of the creature with the body of a man—though twice the size—and the head of a deformed, mad bull. In private, they all whisper the name Minotaur. In front of the king, they speak nothing of it, let alone by any name. And for some reason I cannot comprehend, my younger sister Phaedra wants to find this monster.

Erica Rudnick Macalintal

Erica Rudnick Macalintal
Skin Baby

Skin Baby is a collection of essays about the inevitability of decline and decay—what happens when we turn away from it, and what happens when we’re forced to confront it head on. The essays in this collection focus on navigating a parent’s devastating diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and the struggle to control its accompanying chaos. Essays such as “Things Unattended” focus on discoveries about inherited traits both physical and mental, as well as resignation to accepting the inescapable.

Parkinson’s disease slowly robs people of their faculties as it progresses. Death ultimately occurs, but not before a long period of watching and waiting. Skin Baby explores what that watching and waiting looks like for one family.

My mother’s body is no longer the machine it used to be. The lithe, lovely figure I’d once looked at with such envy, with long black hair and a narrow waist, generous breasts and petite, amber colored limbs. She used to be a dancer, every movement carefully controlled. Her mind had been sharp (“as Valerian steel,” Ken said), a businesswoman in shoulder-padded skirt-suits, striving towards her dream of being a CEO, wanting to be seen as more than just the femininity of being a woman, a mother, and a wife. 

My memory of her this way is a stark contrast to the betrayal her body has wrought on her now, the broken animatronic figure she had become, a shuddering picture of decay. It is clear that she can no longer be alone. Yet, she is often left alone while my father works and they both refuse the cost of a home health aide. When she is not shaking uncontrollably, her limbs freeze and abandon her in vulnerable positions over the stove, the toilet, or the pool. She is front heavy, and perpetually leans forward from back surgery she had three years ago. This makes it easy for her to fall onto the tiled floors, and that much harder to get up. The house is vast, and in her more mobile moments I have watched her propel herself from one wall to the next, leaning on it with her weight, pushing against it to make it to the next stopping point.  Her developing psychosis causes her to frequently require intervention from hospitals and police, resulting in involuntary incarcerations due to mental incapacitation – otherwise known in Florida as Baker Acts. She was home from her second Baker Act for less than four hours before she fell and cracked her skull on the toilet paper holder, requiring five staples. The urgent care clinic she went to didn’t even wash the wound; when I visited her two days later, her hair had been stapled to her scalp. It was an improvement from the gory mess it originally had been, images of which were taken by her nursing aid and flooded my phone the day it happened. During shaking fits, when she is completely robbed of her mobility, two people must hold her up. She trembles while saliva pools from her mouth and drips to the ground. She has a smell now. Of sweat and musk and rot.

When I was nineteen or twenty, shortly after she’d been diagnosed, I found a journal of hers on the vanity of her bathroom, hidden among the perfume bottles and make up. I saw her handwriting, just before the Parkinson’s had shrunken it: I will use all my power to control every cell in my body. I will fight this.

Samuel Oatley

Samuel Oatley
Peaks and Valleys

The state of Florida, despite being the third most populous state in the Union, continues to be curiously underdeveloped in the national literary scene. A large part of this comes from the state’s widely diverse group of citizens, as well as the vacillating political and religious theater Florida often participates within. Florida cannot be so easily categorized, so few attempt to even try. Utilizing fiction, I have made it my goal to examine the wide-ranging and divergent ideas the state provides those of us who reside within it. Every story works to reconcile the characters’ beliefs with an environment that simultaneously supports and discards such convictions. As I have learned in my writing, Florida is as much a state of mind as a location.

Even though it was seven in the morning, Trey’s bedroom remained dark. The windows, once a gateway to Mr. Timmons’s air conditioning unit that clacked and rattled each time the air grew too thick in the neighbor’s cottage, now stood covered in sheet metal. Morning light curved in around the edges, yellow distorted into a light blue from the hurricane shutters’ aluminum tint. The color reminded Trey of certain ridgetops back at Maggie Valley in the winter months, when the snow and ice made the cozy North Carolina hamlet feel like a new world every New Years.

The world did not change in Daytona Beach. It was why the navy blue gym bag was sitting beside the door, ready to bring about Trey’s own minor salvation.

Laura Katherine Ohlmann

Laura Katherine Ohlmann

The speaker struggles with accepting death and the departure of her close family. These poems show the distance between each family member and how coping with grief can create a generational trend towards depression. Amid these explorations, the collection returns to the departed Mother, who the speaker often tries to reconnect with through language and at her gravesite. By probing this universal experience of loss, these poems chronicle the speaker’s relationship with blood, through first menstruation, first death, mass shootings, etc. It ends on the speaker’s father, who becomes a symbol of loss, through his hoarding and inability to care for his own deteriorating body.
I pour Mom a bath of oatmeal suds and keep my forearm submerged to judge what is too hot and what will soothe her. She needs help taking a bath now. I undress her, the way she once held my body close as a newborn and wriggled the fat legs out of the cloth sack. She was always a good mother. Sticky notes in our lunch boxes, two cherry twizzlers for dessert. I take her by the hand and the fingers feel small — soft fuzz on her head and the nape of her neck, skin flaking from her shoulders like lanugo. When I wash the matter from her back and my hand brushes her breast beneath the sudsy water, we are like two animals in the womb. The cornucopia of hair between her legs is bare, and we mourn the soft furloughed body — the body that carried and held three children — now compressed in the wellspring of dirt beneath the earth.