Interview with 2019 Summer Prize Judge Ramona Ausubel

Interview with 2019 Summer Prize Judge 

Ramona Ausubel

In honor of our inaugural 2019 Summer Prizes in Fiction & Poetry, Fiction Editor Molly Gutman conducted a micro-interview with our Fiction Prize Judge, Ramona Ausubel. Read on to learn more about fabulist worlds, Ramona Ausubel’s newest short story collection Awayland, and what she’s looking for in a winning story!

Ramona Ausubel is the author of two novels and two story collections. Her most recent book, Awayland, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, a Finalist for the California Book Award, Colorado Book Award and long-listed for the Story Prize. She is also the author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, No One is Here Except All of Us and A Guide to Being Born. She is the recipient of the PEN/USA Fiction Award, the Cabell First Novelist Award and was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and joins the faculty at Colorado State University in the fall of 2019.

Molly Gutman is a fiction editor at Cream City Review and a PhD student in fiction at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her stories appear or are forthcoming in Granta, Alaska Quarterly Review, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.


1. Lots of your stories exist in fabulist worlds, where people grow extra arms to represent their love, or where a Cyclops might write a dating profile. But even your more realist stories still feel slippery—weird, magical—in the way they deal with memory and love and the human body. What does fantastical fiction offer us that other approaches to fiction might not?

I think the world is profoundly strange and surprising—the actual, real world. And human experience is an entire universe of strange and surprising, so to add a fantastical element sometimes seems like a way of holding a mirror up to regular life, regular experience and saying, “See that? Isn’t that that incredible and weird?” I always want to write toward experiences that feel true and sometimes a magical twist makes it easier to see the thing. Sometimes it’s not needed and the world’s own wildness speaks for itself.

2. What about experimental and citational narrative forms? You have stories that are (or quote from) dating profiles, acknowledgements and museum placards, fictional books, letters, and more. How do you think through these approaches? Do choices in framing and presentation come early in your drafting process?

Some of these come from things I’ve seen or read that struck me as very odd. I was in the Egypt Museum in Cairo where there really is a room full of animal mummies and it really does have a plaque listing the people the animal mummies would like to thank. I saw that and thought, “Oh, DO they?” And that became a story. Same with the dating profile. I knew I needed the chatty voice of internet advice to off-set the Cyclops’ own story. Sometimes these documents feel like a map I’m laying down to give us somewhere to stand while a large or peculiar situation takes place. It’s grounding. I’m also always thinking of how to set different elements in opposition to one another. A mundane real-world document with an otherworldly character, etc.

3. Some of your newest collection, Awayland, taps into preexisting narratives like Greek Mythology. I love retellings (they’re probably my favorite genre!) and I’m hoping you’ll talk a little about what in retellings excites you.

I love them too! There’s something about those stories that so many of us carry around, a sort of collective narrative burden/delight. They are often meant to be teaching stories too, or alternative histories, or justifications for wars or political borders. Those stories do tremendous work in our human world and it’s just really a joy to grab a thread and pull it into a new piece of fabric. It feels like invoking something big.

4. Who are you reading right now?

I am telling everyone I talk to about Helen Phillips’ new novel THE NEED. It’s creepy and gripping and profound. I have been reading Pam Houston’s beautiful memoir DEEP CREEK, Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir GOOD TALK and re-reading Louise Erdrich.

5. When you’re reading stories—or judging prizes—what blows your socks off? What are you looking for in a winning entry?

I’m always reading for ambition and bravery, even if it’s a short story. Something reached for (even if it doesn’t come out perfectly)—beautiful language, a big idea, some kind of what-if. Most importantly, I love it when I can feel how strongly a writer cared about getting this thing down. Whether the story is funny or sad or everything at once, I want to feel like it had to be here.


Submissions to our 2019 Summer Prizes in Fiction and Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for full guidelines.



“Revelations” by Maria Terrone


by Maria Terrone

I grew up in a family and culture where we lived by the dictum, “Never tell anyone your business.” The assumption behind this warning was that to share confidences was to make yourself vulnerable to people who might use the information against you. Basically, very few human beings could be trusted, and so as a general rule it was wise to avoid discussing personal matters and one’s deepest thoughts and feelings.

It’s no surprise, then, that even as an adult, I gravitate to physical spaces that help protect me and my privacy. In our enclosed co-op garden, I seek out the bench that’s nearly encircled by shrubbery. Riding the subway, I’ll gravitate to a seat against a wall at the far end of the car. From these vantage points, I can look out and observe others without being seen or at least, remain inconspicuous.

Not being seen? Not sharing life in all its agonies, ecstasies and minutiae with 1,500 “friends”? In a world dominated by social media, my inclinations conflict with cultural expectations. Even so, I have a Facebook account that I use sparingly for practical purposes, and even a Twitter handle, but please don’t ask me what that is—I’ll have to look it up! I suppose this is my way of not isolating myself from 21st century communication but “sharing” on my own terms.

Where things get sticky is in my life as a poet. When I began to get serious decades ago about my then-uncirculated writing, the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath was the much-admired norm. Given my upbringing, my initial reaction was to cringe in the face of naked self-revelation, to feel uneasy on the receiving end of the authors’ fury, pain, and trauma. At the same time, I had to acknowledge the honesty and courage of poets who brought the hidden and forbidden into full view.

Getting used to writing my own confessional poetry, though, didn’t come easily. When the leader of my first poetry workshop repeatedly urged me to “go deeper,” I understood her to mean that I should plumb my emotions and experiences no matter where that brought me. It’s not that I avoided the first person in my poems, but I wasn’t allowing myself to go far below the surface.

My learned and, I believe, natural reserve was being tested. But how could I write poetry that truly mattered, that touched readers on their deepest levels if I stayed with “safe” content The answer was, I couldn’t.

Like a new swimmer tentatively advancing one baby step at a time into a vast, sometimes frightening, sometimes exhilarating ocean, I began to write more self-revealing poetry. I’ve always had an aversion to poems that were too raw, as if thrown together in the heat of unrestrained emotion. A counterbalance to deal with difficult content, I discovered, was to focus on the poem’s form. What had moved me from mere acceptance of the confessional writers to admiration was that the best of them used their finely honed poetic skills to communicate the strongest emotions, transforming what could have been overwhelming for a reader into powerful, refined works of art.

In my own work, I found that using formal techniques to frame my poems was liberating. One example that comes to mind from my first collection, The Bodies We Were Loaned, is “Flesh That’s Signed,” a three-part, sonnet-like poem employing rhyme that deals with my childhood insecurities in my relationship with my mother. As a 16-year-old, I was profoundly affected by my summer job typing up psychiatrists’ reports and group sessions with veterans wounded physically and emotionally. I turned again to the sonnet form to grapple with the remembered feelings “of a girl who hadn’t yet known sorrow, men or war.”

I still get a visceral thrill from writing persona poems, probably because they allow me to employ the first person point of view while imagining and inhabiting another’s psyche (I’ve had fun being a queen in ancient Egypt, a ghost in a lighthouse, and a 19th-century teenager employed by a glass factory, to mention a few). I also like to write about historical subjects—a recent example is a poem imagining a meeting between Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Jefferson during the brief time that Poe attended Jefferson’s University of Charlottesville. But I recognize that some of my strongest work emerges in times of great duress, such as my beloved father’s deterioration from Alzheimer’s and his death.

Over the last few years, I’ve found myself reaching into my past and re-experiencing formative events from a new perspective through my poetry and, increasingly, creative nonfiction. When the Me Too movement opened its floodgates, memories resurfaced. Although the incident that I describe in the poem “Erased” had occurred a long time ago, I remembered it vividly. The fact that so many women had bravely disclosed physical violations far more egregious and traumatic than what I’d experienced on the street was empowering. Instead of keeping the subject buried, I knew the time had come to bring it into the light through my writing.

Once I made that leap, I realized that the form of the poem could reinforce my sense of being eradicated. And so, before the assault is introduced, the “I” is repeated and prominent. This is the self-affirming “I” in all its youth, innocence, and optimism. Then “he” enters the scene and only needs to be cited once because “he” dominates through violence. After the assault, the “I” has been replaced by a column of negatives—”not, no, nil, nada,” ending with the ultimate erasure: “no-thing.” The woman, the person—me—has been reduced not just to an object, but to nothing.

Ironically, by writing this poem and seeing it published—thank you, Cream City Review editors!—I feel that I’ve reclaimed a lost part of myself. As that poet advised in her workshop, I’ve “dug deeper” in my writing, and the result has been a breakthrough.


Maria Terrone’s poetry collections are Eye to Eye; A Secret Room in Fall (McGovern Prize, Ashland Poetry Press), The Bodies We Were Loaned, and a chapbook, American Gothic, Take 2. Publication credits: Poetry, Ploughshares and more than 25 anthologies. At Home in the New World, an essay collection, appears this fall from Bordighera Press. Terrone’s poem “Erased” appears in Issue 43.1 of Cream City Review.



“Maybe Faith Isn’t Unlike a Photon & Asking More from Discovery” by Rosebud Ben-Oni

Maybe Faith Isn’t Unlike a Photon &

Asking More from Discovery

by Rosebud Ben-Oni

In my poem “Poet Wrestling with God as One of Us,” published in the latest issue of Cream City Review, I tried to make God one of us. I tried to make up God as matter or a thing, like us. Tried to make God abide by time. Imagined that God began like one of us. Imagined hobbies, mood swings, squabbles {that we’ve shared}. For most of my life, I’ve experienced intense stretches of solitude. Not loneliness per se, but being lost in my own head, even while being present, even while having full conversations with those I loved and those I worked with. In a room full of people, say, while giving a reading of my work, there was another part of me, elsewhere, trying to make God one of us.

I did this in how I used to pray. In how I looked at human suffering and success. In how I wrote my own poems and prose.

In doing this, {I} was trying very hard to relate to a great abstraction, in the sense I was trying to receive something from it. Receive answers, comfort, a sense of security. Feel a less little doubt and loneliness about my own uncertain timeline. Make unclear, diaphanous it like my own flesh, my own blood.

In this poem, I also imagined {a} God capable of regret. A disenchanted mystic, a disappointed prizefighter, one who {I} could rescue, one I’d unconceal as a being whose true self was the opposite of the patriarchy. How we could live gloriously in this post-patriarchal world. I listened to the tug-and-pull of celestial gender in my heart. I wanted to rescue, not be rescued. I listened to the Joan Osborne song which inspired the poem’s title. I feel asleep thinking of this poem, and heard in a rush of blood in fingers, arms, chest. I heard wild ewes and their lambs running from armed helicopters. I heard the bitterness of a man who could not stop sounding the alarm, marching into war, enlisting hoards of those just like him, drawing their swords, polishing their pistols. I heard all of them rushing toward me. One by one, I was wiped out. I was put to death. The last one standing, the four-legged me cornered in an open plain, kicking, rising up on two legs.

I woke up wondering, among many things, why I too needed a hero.

Why I was trying to make sense of something not human in human.

I’m glad I wrote this poem.

Often, writing poems that help you make sense of where you are will help you to get to where you need to be.

Because now I’m convinced God is more like a {fundamental} force and a disturbance in that force.

Rather: God is not a thing at all, but an event.

And maybe faith is a quantum of a {yet-unnamed} field in theoretical physics.

I mean, for example, think of faith like a photon in the sense that the moment a photon appears in the electromagnetic field and can be discovered, it vanishes. But the field has always been real. It’s always there. I explore this in my forthcoming collection from Alice James, If This Is the Age We End Discovery, and what I believe is the what of what God as a force longs for the most, but can never quite get. A force that I call “Efes,” which is Modern Hebrew for “Zero,” but means much more than that.

I consider myself a person of faith. I consider myself a Jew, though my Judaism differs greatly from that in which I studied in Hebrew school. I think of God now as a force, a realness that keeps cloaked in mystery, because perhaps it’s the detection of the mystery itself that is the answer. Just like our frustrating friend the photon.

In writing the poems that made up If This Is the Age We End Discovery, I had to write a poem like “Poet Wrestling with God as One of Us” first because I truly was wrestling with the often frustrating and strange evolution of humanity. How do we break from the natural hierarchies within life as it is today? Why do we keep repeating the same violences using the old linguistic backbones, those sexist, racist and xenophobic clichés that then shape our reality? How would we ever achieve social freedom without true economic freedom? What would a world look like if we truly decided that resources should be universal and that everyone have had a chance in pursuing their dreams and passions, if everyone had a hand in what would larger discovery?

There’s one possible answer to the Theory of Everything, which of course is not the same Theory of Everything of theoretical physics. It does not contain the same troubling questions that scientists are asking today.

But maybe they should.

No, they should.


Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a 2013 CantoMundo Fellow; her most recent collection, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions’ EDITORS’ CHOICE, and will be published in 2019. Her poem “Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark” was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in NYC.