A Writer’s Insight: Bernardo Wade

Bernardo Wade’s poem, “God Made Dirt, & Dirt Ain’t Popeyes,” appears in the Autumn 2022 issue of The Southern Review. Here, Bernardo discusses the importance of family and place in his work, along with his favorite food at Popeyes.

Zach Shultz, editorial assistant: You open the poem with a note about your decision to use the sestina form. Can you tell us about that decision, and for readers unfamiliar with this form, can you talk more about why you chose the sestina as a container for this particular poem? 

Bernardo Wade: In a way my decision was coaxed, or, maybe, I was lucky someone else loved me enough to suggest something outside of my comfort zone. It was near the tail end of an MFA workshop when another poet, on Zoom, shouted out of nowhere, “Bernardo! I think you should write a sestina!” To be fair, we were giving each other prompts, but I did ask myself at the time, “Why a sestina?”

I had a vague understanding of its constraints, knowing, similar to the villianelle or ghazal, that if I was to repeat the same words at the end of a line, it should be interesting, maybe surprising. Then another poet said, “Don’t be boring! Break the form!” Class ended, and from the dining room of my mother’s kitchen in New Orleans—remember, we were on Zoom—I started playing around with the form.

I remember thinking if I could get a kind of conversational tone down alloyed with a certain rhythm, the repeated word would feel less protrusive. There was a Popeyes box sitting on the counter, and I started thinking about what buttermilk was and who thought to dip chicken in it. Eventually, I had the first draft of this poem.

When an idea for a poem starts to bloom in your mind, do you already have a form in mind, or does the poem itself dictate which form you ultimately choose to bring it to life? 

For the most part, I try to get language down that might surprise me. When the content reveals something I hadn’t thought of before, maybe then I start considering the form. For this poem, I’m indebted to Aurielle Marie’s “Unlike Every Other Poem I Found You In” published by Split Lip Magazine. I almost forgot about my sestina, then I read theirs, and thought, Wow, I really dig how this poem breaks from the left alignment.

The influence of their poem helped me see how I could let mine breathe. Breaking away from a five or six beat line, I could make the rhythm feel a bit more playful, more interesting to me.

Family, particularly the connection with a mother, comes through as a salient theme in your poem, and also in a lot of your work. Can you talk about the central role that family plays in your work? 

I think about this a lot. I only come from two places—my mother and father. In that way, it’s a sort of poetics of place. No matter how much, at times, I think I’m different from them, they are a kind of genesis for my understanding of the world. I try not to get mired down by a binary of whether they were good or bad parents. Maybe I’m just old enough to understand they had their own shit with them—that we all do.

I’m all about having a speaker that takes fictive liberties in poems, making up details that might add a little more emotive entanglement. Yet, in my experience, the more I revise a poem, the closer it comes down to the truth of things, to the truth of what, as I see it, happened. I guess I’ve tried to revise my life in the same way: a continual peeling back to find a more consistent, sympathetic ethos. And isn’t that the juice? To learn how to love and give a little more of yourself. I think I’m indebted to my friend Ross, who showed me that writing is connected to how we live, how we breathe all this in.

New Orleans leaves a heavy imprint in this poem and much of your other work. How does New Orleans as a place influence your art? 

Born and raised, baby. Born and raised. My father once said, “Don’t forget, you from some place.” New Orleanians definitely going to tell you where they from. We love our city. If I’m a part of any tradition, it’s that one.

Has your relationship between place and poetry changed since you moved away from the city? 

Moving to Bloomington changed my relationship with nature. I’d only lived in cities before. During the pandemic we got an Aussie mix, Calliope, and I started walking her nearly every day in the woods. There was something in the everydayness of walking through there that shifted something inside of me. I became aware of the seasons—New Orleans doesn’t really have seasons in the same way—the transitions things take, need to take. This might sound basic to some folk, but, for me, I always had a fear of the woods, like it was a place not for me, not safe.


What excites you most in the work of other poets writing today? What do you look for in poetry? 

I like poets that are going for it. A well-crafted poem is cool, but what about those poems where the craft breaks down a little bit and the poet hits you with that chin shot? I guess in poetry we can call it a love tap.

I also look for poetry that’s being its weird self. Though I don’t know if I have criteria, I like poems that do more than try to impress with language. I want something that brings me somewhere, in and outside of myself, somewhere I haven’t been before. When I was leaving for break, I grabbed Ama Codjoe and Paul Tran’s new joints. Wow, both of those books are… it. Also brought Yusef’s Magic City—I’ve kept that one close for a little minute now.
This piece reads like a love letter to the speaker’s mother. Can you talk about the influence of your own mother, or maternal figures from your life, in your work? 

In my mother’s house, the kitchen is its heart. Though she did cook for a living, it felt like my whole life people would pull up a stool, pour a glass of wine, and unwind. There was always hella gossip and sorrow and advice and joy and screaming—the good, the bad, and the ugly—in the kitchen. Good food, too. My mom can really cook. Maybe my ideas around telling stories started from listening to grown folks talk in the kitchen.

Poetry, much of the time for me, is about listening. I think of a poem as world building—the beginning of something that wasn’t there begins with that first word on that first line. That feels kind of grandiose when I say it, but it helps me. Sometimes I think my poems are saying, “Hey, come over here, I got a story to tell YOU!” Like it’s the unspoken first line of all my poems. I think that comes from my mother, the tradition of storytelling that I found in her kitchen.

Is this poem part of a chapbook or larger poetry collection? What are you currently working on?

I think, just recently, I thought, Oh dang, I might have a li’l something something here. Might be a full-length in the works, yeah.

Last question: What’s your favorite item off the menu at Popeyes?  

Now this is a good question. I usually do the same order. Growing up, I did love the mashed potatoes, though, today, Big Box, spicy, with a breast and a thigh, red beans and coleslaw, pepper on the side. If I’m home, I have to stop and grab a Big Shot, pineapple or strawberry. There is no Popeyes in Bloomington! Every time I’m in Indianapolis, which is mostly to go to the airport, I stop and grab a big box of Popeyes. I got to.

Bernardo Wade is a Black writer from New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the editor of the Indiana Review and is a Watering Hole Fellow. He won the 2021 Puerto del Sol Poetry Prize and has works appearing or forthcoming in Ecotone, Guernica, and The Cincinnati Review.

Zach Shultz is an MFA Candidate at Louisiana State University and former nonfiction editor for New Delta Review. He is a 2019 Lambda Literary nonfiction fellow and a 2022 Indiana University Writers’ Conference fiction fellow. His work has appeared in LitHubElectric LiteratureThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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Announcing the Winners of Our 2022 Awards

The Southern Review is pleased to announce this year’s recipients of the Oran Robert Perry Burke Awards for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Literary Translation, as well as the James Olney Award. These annual awards, established and funded by the generous support of donors, are presented to contributors in recognition of an exceptional work that appears in the previous volume year. Our congratulations to the winners!


The recipient of the Oran Robert Perry Burke Award for Fiction is

Lucas Southworth

for the story, “Quantum Physics,” from our winter 2022 issue


The recipient of the Oran Robert Perry Burke Award for Nonfiction is

Heather Aruffo

for the essay, “At the Women’s Only Handgun Class in Fairbanks, Alaska,” from our spring 2022 issue


The recipient of the Oran Robert Perry Burke Award for Poetry is

Michael Pontacoloni

for the poem, “Antique Map of Dorchester Neck,” from our summer 2022 issue


The recipient of the Oran Robert Perry Burke Award for Literary Translation is

Charlotte Coombe and Antonio Díaz Oliva

for the translation from Spanish of Antonio Díaz Oliva’s story, “Mrs. Gonçalves and the Lives of Others,” from our spring 2022 issue


The recipient of the James Olney Award is

torrin a. greathouse

for the poem, “Etymythology,” from our spring 2022 issue

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A Writer’s Insight: Bryn Chancellor

Bryn Chancellor’s short story, “Remnants,” appears in the Autumn 2022 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses the centrality of place in her writing, the power of story to humanize the opioid epidemic, and the challenges of moving between novel and short story.

Zach Shultz, editorial assistant: The landscape of Phoenix comes to life in “Remnants” – almost as if the city itself is a character in the story. How important is place to you in fiction?  

Bryn Chancellor: Place is right up there with characters for me. I grew up in northern Arizona and then lived in the Phoenix area for over a decade; my family and friends are still there, so I go back often. In Phoenix, my house was a mile north of the (semi-fictionalized) neighborhood in “Remnants”; I’ve fictionalized the businesses and renamed streets but retained the layout and landmarks, such as the Coliseum and fairgrounds, a well-known park, the city’s oldest community college, and the otherworldly lake on the far eastern outskirts of the city. One of my best friends used to live two blocks from the Coliseum, and we’d sit in the back yard listening to faint shrieks and music from the fairgrounds under the glow of electric lights.

I think my obsession with place in part comes from growing up where I did, in the shadow of red sandstone rocks that I climbed barefoot and caves where bats flew out at dusk, where giant sinkholes had names like Devil’s Kitchen. In the desert, you can’t ignore the landscape. It’s big and strange and fragile and dangerous. Walking out the door at midnight and running smack into a wall of 90 degree heat—that stays with you.

ZS: What short story collections and/or novels have inspired your own work? What other writers do you see your work engaging with?

BC: I carry so many writers’ influences, their words and images fluttering around inside me. I recently taught Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and they all slay me. Amy Hempel and Alice Munro, the minimalist and the maximalist, are the first literary writers I loved. For linked collections and multivocal novels, Rohinton Mistry’s Swimming Lessons, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Anything Is Possible, Louise Erdrich’s LaRose. Lord, it’s impossible to narrow down.

ZS: In the past few years, we’ve witnessed more stories about the opioid epidemic—in both the literary world and in popular culture. I’m thinking about Nico Walker’s Cherry and Beth Macy’s Dopesick (and its Hulu adaption). What do you find inspiring, or lacking, in the existing stories out there about this issue. What do you hope your work contributes to the larger discourse on addiction?

BC: The recent reporting—yes, Beth Macy and Patrick Radden Keefe—is shattering. Those stories are vital because they shine a light on the systemic culpability in this crisis. Since the start of the so-called War on Drugs, many dominant narratives about addiction tend to blame individuals, punish them, stigmatize them, make them responsible for their own recovery but ignore societal and governmental neglect and devastating legal and carceral policies. With opioids, there’s extra cruelty in drugmakers inflicting and profiting from this pain.

But this fictional story started in a smaller place, after I saw a live-streamed video of two people overdosing on a sidewalk. I thought, this is where we are now, passersby filming strangers in crisis? Publicly humiliating people in their worst, life-threatening moments? Have I stumbled into an episode of Black Mirror? At the same time, my writer brain noticed those people’s physical contortions—the word that came to mind was body-snatched. That’s what ultimately led to this story, wondering about how it felt for a person to recover in the midst of such public and private shame, about how our bodies are so external and internal.

ZS: Most recovery stories center on male characters. The hyper masculine anti-hero struggling with addiction has become something of a trope in the larger genre of redemption narratives. But your protagonist, Sunny, subverts a lot of expectations we have of characters dealing with this issue. How did Sunny’s particular recovery experience—as a mother, daughter, woman—inform your development of her as a character? How did she come to you?

BC: Sunny actually is a character from one my earliest stories, “Water at Midnight,” published almost twenty years ago now. She was seventeen years old in that story, sent by her mother to live with her father in Phoenix, hugely pissed off and flirting inappropriately with the lawn irrigator. When I began writing these new stories, set seventeen years later, I wrote her daughter Penelope’s story first. I was pondering her mother’s addiction, this neighborhood, and it came to me seemingly out of nowhere: What if her mother is Sunny?

I think it’s the rage that brought her to me. Sunny was furious as a teenager about her circumstances, but she didn’t understand why—which infuriated her more. Sunny’s escalating, misdirected but righteous anger about her present and past life, which finally explodes outside the brewery, is one of my favorite things about her. But it’s also terribly sad; at the end of the first story I wrote with her, she’s so hopeful, on the cusp of adulthood. It broke my heart a little to take her through this fire, but it also felt true to how our lives take unexpected and often tragic turns.

ZS: One of the most heartbreaking elements of “Remnants” was the fractured relationship between Sunny and her daughter, Pen. What motivated your choice to make Sunny a mother, and to have this fissure with her daughter become a central tension in the story? What are we, as readers, to make of Sunny’s inability to repair this mother- daughter relationship?

BC: The fissure was there from the early drafts, though I had to discover more about its roots and complexities. I often have to fight the impulse to fix everything for my characters by the end of a story, and that was true here. I wanted a reconciliation, but I also knew it wouldn’t be true to the situation or the characters.

My sense is that Sunny and Pen can repair their relationship, but Sunny first needs to repair herself. She’s fortunate that Pen’s father and wife step in and give her that space. Actually, the scene with Francie, which was a bit of a surprise for me, helped me see that. The final scene when Sunny is by herself, not riding to escape but simply for pleasure, feeling herself in the world, felt really hopeful to me.

ZS: Is “Remnants” part of a larger project? If so, tell us about what we can expect next.

BC: Yes, it’s part of ten linked stories set in the same Phoenix neighborhood where three families cross paths over the course of about a year. “Remnants” is the final story (right now, anyway), and the other characters in it—Pen, Francie, Arthur, and Vera—also have their own stories. Sunny is the through-character, whom we see from everyone else’s perspective before her own. My goal is for the stories to stand on their own, though they lean on each other and can form a larger story if you read the whole set. Like stars in a constellation, maybe. That combination of singular and communal always has appealed to me.

ZS: “Remnants” does not follow a traditional story structure. The narrative is often thrown into the past by a memory triggered in the protagonist, which sheds light on her current situation in powerful ways. How did you decide on this non-linear structure, and what challenges and possibilities did this form offer?

BC: You’re right, the movement is kind of bonkers. It took me awhile to figure it out. One thing that helped was to put a strict timer on it; it takes place on New Year’s Eve, and then one night two weeks later, the day of the presidential inauguration. I also tried to keep Sunny in motion in the present: she’s unloading fabric, sweeping the salon, riding her bike, fidgeting at a meeting, buying apples, mowing the lawn at night.

This fits with her story—she needs to keep moving, keep busy—but it also let me throw her backward into thought without it feeling too navel-gazey. The structure also should emphasize her internal state: Her mind is constantly in motion, battling urges and ruminations that interrupt the present.

ZS: You’ve previously published a novel titled Sycamore, and a story collection, When Are You Coming Home? What is it like for you to move between long and short forms of fiction? Do you find one form more compelling, or energizing, as a writer or reader?

BC: Currently, I’m working on a novel at the same time as these stories. I feel a little like my brother’s Stretch Armstrong action figure (look it up, kids), which we once tested to its limits by pulling its limbs across a street. I didn’t plan to do both at once: an early draft of the novel split in two. So I’ve been swinging back and forth, slowly, slowly, stumble, bumble, tick tock.

The truth is that as a writer, many days, I find both forms excruciating. I’ve been sitting here trying to think of a good analogy for short story versus novel, but the image that keeps coming for the baffling writing process is… pole vaulting.

There you are on the track, with a long pole balanced on your shoulder. You rock back and forth in your spiffy shoes. You’ve trained years for this. You take a deep breath, heft the pole, and bolt down the track. You plant the tip of that bendy stick, contort like an inchworm, and catapult yourself skyward, toward an impossibly high bar. Most days you miss—clang, the bar falls. But sometimes you clear it. Then, falling is flying is floating. You sprawl on the mat, make invisible snow angels, your skin shushing on the vinyl. Then, you get up, start again.

For a short story, do it blind-folded or with a monkey on your back. For a novel, make it a decathlon, lop off a finger, and age a decade. Either way, the miracle isn’t clearing the bar. It’s that you keep going to the track.

Bryn Chancellor is author of the novel Sycamore, a Southwest Book of the Year, and the story collection When Are You Coming Home?, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. She lives and teaches in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Zach Shultz is an MFA Candidate at Louisiana State University and former nonfiction editor for New Delta Review. He is a 2019 Lambda Literary nonfiction fellow and a 2022 Indiana University Writers’ Conference fiction fellow. His work has appeared in LitHubElectric LiteratureThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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In Memoriam: Charles Simic (1938-2023)

The Southern Review mourns the death of longtime contributor and friend Charles Simic (May 9, 1938–January 9, 2023). For the last thirty years, Mr. Simic’s work frequently appeared in the journal. From our winter 2021 issue, here is his poem “Circus.”

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A Writer’s Insight: Corbin Muck

Corbin Muck’s short story, “A Centennial History of Cascade Depths National Park,” appears in the Autumn 2022 issue of The Southern Review. In this interview, he touches on what sparks his imagination, how formal experimentation can enhance theme, and the challenges of verisimilitude in realist fiction.

Zach Shultz, editorial assistant: In many ways, your story reads very like a nonfiction essay. What did your research process look like while drafting this story? Where did you begin?

Corbin Muck: I grew up in Vancouver, Washington, not far from where the story takes place, and on clear days in Vancouver you can see a good portion of Mt. St. Helens, which is the mountain whose eruption kicks off the whole story.

On one level it was natural for me to draw from my own knowledge of the area and start things off by working in some very local references I’d grown up with. But the whole idea of a story like this is that any kind of presumed, monolithic understanding of a place can’t help but be an illusion.

So, I spent a lot of time researching the ways that the Cowlitz, Nisqually, and other native peoples define the areas depicted in the story. I also researched nationalized sovereignty movements like the American Indian Movement, which were schools of thought which productively challenged some “safe” assumptions we make about the meaning of public land, paired alongside the lasting, if little known impact of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Pacific Northwest. The story is fiction, and the park imagined, but I hope that the verisimilitude is such that all its perspectives have real resonance.

ZS: This story shifts between a number of different voices and narrative registers throughout. How did you decide on a voice, and how did you develop these voices to render them with such realism?

 CM: I’m flattered to hear that the different voices felt real and distinct. I think that was one of the great challenges of the piece. The historic grounding helps here too, but I also had to know when to back away from that a little bit lest it feel like I’m sitting on the reader’s shoulder whispering, “See, it’s like in the nineteen seventies, isn’t it?”

But it’s hard. The characters here are doing some heavy lifting as both markers of time and place and perspective in a broad sense, while also needing to be “real” fake people. So I tried to think through what their quirks might be, their linguistic flourishes, and which words or sentences in each of their passages formed the core of who they were outside of the quotation itself. Even the characters who show up as just names and don’t have the opportunity to speak for themselves need to feel real.

ZS: Where does the spark of an idea for a story come from for you?

CM: I usually start with an image that strikes me which I prod at until the why of it comes into view. Then I take a step back, and I think about what I want the story to say. After repeating that process a few times, the momentum tends to take over.

That initial image usually contains something very important about the theme or the purpose or the imaginative hook that should be sustained all the way to the piece’s final form. Inspiration is a delicately luminous thing, and the quickest way for a story to be bad or, worse, for it to be abandoned, is when that initial spark is lost in the process of realization.

ZS: Your story experiments with form and structure in some highly inventive ways. Can you talk about how you came up with the structure for this story? Did you look at existing models, or did you arrive at this shape by trial and error? Or both?

CM: I knew pretty quickly that the initial idea of this piece would be told as a series of faux historical events, as if you were walking through some imagined interpretive center or museum. I think that its form is its single most important aspect because it introduces, and hopefully sustains, the theme of reinterpretation which the park undergoes through the eyes of those who reckon with it. In my earlier drafts, there was far more contextualizing through that “interpretive” device, but I tried to pare that down significantly so that the voices could speak for themselves more, and in so doing, level the playing field between them and any “authoritative” narration.

ZS: What writers do you turn to when looking for successfully executed experiments with form?

If I wanted to convince someone that the form words take can be as important to a story as the words themselves, my go to suggestion would be House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, or the short fiction of the Irish writer Louise Hegarty. For inspiration in general, I have most recently been in utter awe of the work of Jesmyn Ward, Kawai Strong Washburn, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

ZS: From a craft perspective, what did your process look like when you were working with all the different threads in your story and finding a pattern that made sense in braiding them together?

It was very important to me that all of the excerpts seemed as if they were all part of one, long conversation. If it ever felt like something wasn’t there in response to something else, or if something couldn’t be riffed on and changed by the pieces which stacked on top of it, then that was usually a sign that it needed to be cut. And in a story with such a sweeping timescale as this—which references so many macro-level events in history—you have to be careful not to let the big stuff distract you from the granular, highly personalized way that a specific character might respond.

Real people very rarely respond cleanly to things. They bounce off in strange, hard to predict directions. If you try to embrace that element in your character design, I think you arrive at much richer, more fully realized results.

Corbin Muck is a writer living in Seattle, Washington, with his partner, Mariska, and their two cats. His work has appeared in Quarterly West, Crannóg, and Cirque.

Zach Shultz is an MFA Candidate at Louisiana State University and former nonfiction editor for New Delta Review. He is a 2019 Lambda Literary nonfiction fellow and a 2022 Indiana University Writers’ Conference fiction fellow. His work has appeared in LitHubElectric LiteratureThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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