Crows and Lemons: An Interview with the Winners of the 23-24 Third Coast Poetry and Fiction Contests!

Hello Third Coast Readers!

This week’s blog post brings exciting news about the 2023-2024 Third Coast Fiction and Poetry Contests. We are so excited to announce Elina Kumra as the winner of the 2023-2024 Fiction Contest for her piece “The Grandmother,” and Sara Fetherolf as the winner of the 2023-2024 Poetry Contest for their piece “Poet as Meyer Lemon Tree they Keep Forgetting to Water”.

I was grateful for the opportunity to read their impressive works and craft interview questions to hear more. Both writers have taken the time to respond thoughtfully to these questions and offer insightful information about their influences, technology, storytelling, and more. For more information about the writers, please refer to their bios located underneath the interviews.

You can read their pieces in an upcoming issue of Third Coast—stay tuned!

The judges for this year’s fiction and poetry contests were Fernando A. Flores and Destiny O. Birdsong, respectively. You can find more information about the judges and the contests here.

— Logen Crandall, Editorial Intern

An Interview with Elina KuMra

Crandall: Before we dive into the story itself, I would love to hear about your poetic and fictional roots. How did you get started in the writing realm? What led you to begin submitting your work? 

Kumra: From childhood, I’ve been deeply drawn to journaling and storytelling. The act of observing and capturing my world – both the day-to-day and the extraordinary – became a starting point for more serious writing. This process of unpacking thoughts and experiences through written words was, and continues to be, a foundational element in my writing journey.

Crandall: Where did you find inspiration for “The Grandmother”? Considering the Grandma’s origin in Chengdu, a city in China, was your writing influenced by Chinese folklore?

Kumra: Indian and Chinese folklore intrigue me. The complexity of their stories is fascinating- myths filled with enlightenment, holding up a lens to society’s values. Folklore’s mix of the real and unreal captivated my young mind and still inspires me today.  As a writer, I strive to explore the light and dark, taking cues from folklore’s fusions of human and supernatural. The tales taught me to blur lines, connecting worlds to create a more engaging narrative. This piece, like these myths, merges twists of reality and sparks of the supernatural. My aim is to invigorate readers, provoke thought, and reveal the allure of storytelling.

Crandall: The imagery in your piece is incredible. The reader shifts from chilling images of disfigured crows and toddlers with chicken heads to lovely glimpses of flowers growing from soda cans. Did you find yourself in a balancing act between the supernatural and the beautifully simple in this story?

Kumra: Thank you! I did strive for a balance between the supernatural and the starkly real in my tale. I’ve always admired Gabriel García Márquez’s ability to blend ordinary and extraordinary elements in his stories, making it seem like the extraordinary or the impossible could naturally exist in our world.

I also wanted to imbue everyday actions with deeper meanings. For example, the grandmother stowing away her money is reminiscent of the Dickensian era, but also delves into the concept of hoarding at a metaphysical level. And much like Alfred Lord Tennyson employed bird symbolism in his poetry to express profound human experiences, I tried to use avian imagery to enhance my narrative.

I also added an element of Chinese folklore with the reference to “The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea”. While eight is generally associated with luck in Chinese mythology, the seven-headed crow in my story suffers and fights, challenging that familiar association.
In essence, my story aims to blend Western and Eastern literary traditions, metaphysical philosophy, and timeless folklore. Each element, from the seven-headed crow to the flowers growing out of soda cans, is meant to bring the magical and the mundane together in harmony, just like what Gabriel García Márquez achieved in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”.

Inspiration from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle”, particularly its vivid depiction of a bird’s flight, helped shape my story’s strong avian imagery. The ancient Chinese tale of cooperative effort and unity, “Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea”, also lent its undertones to my narrative, similar to how the seven arguing heads of the crow are bound by a single stomach. So, yes, you could say I was walking a tightrope between fantasy and reality in a tousled snowglobe, in an attempt to create a story that speaks to the beauty and strangeness of our world from a unique perspective.

Crandall: “The Grandmother” sends a subliminal message about the power of storytelling and the effect it has on an audience. What do you want readers to take away from this story?

Kumra: I want my readers to understand that stories are not merely for entertainment or a way to spend time; their power extends much further. They have the potential to reshape our viewpoints, shift our ingrained paradigms, and question conventional norms. More importantly, stories have the remarkable ability to validate our experiences, making us feel seen, heard, and acknowledged.

An Interview with Sara Fetherolf

Crandall: The ‘about’ page on your website states that you live “next to a well-worn stretch of the Pacific Ocean”. Do you find this environment to be suitable for your writing? Describe your ideal conditions when creating a new piece.

Fetherolf: It’s funny you picked out that line in my bio. I’ve updated that sentence several times to try to get the description right. I live in a port city. I find living near the ocean is often associated with a certain glamor or privilege, but that doesn’t fit with my local ocean. For every pristine beach that is a picturesque home to the wealthy, there are so many stretches of ocean that are polluted and worn through. I think about this a lot. I love writing in the natural world, but I can’t ever get past that awareness that this beautiful place is also dying because of human causes.

With that in mind, I don’t know if I have ideal conditions for writing, at least when it comes to place. I am simply influenced by whatever environment I find myself in. In a lot of my writing—and certainly in “Poet as Meyer Lemon Tree they Keep Forgetting to Water”—I try to represent a physical and emotional landscape at the same time. I live in a constant state of pathetic fallacy—the whole world is part of my own emotional life, and my emotion is part of the landscape of the world. Or, put another way, the landscapes of this earth are animate, and they interact with me mostly through the language of emotion. So I don’t have an ideal landscape for writing, because my writing is driven by engaging with my relationship with a place as it exists in its fullness, if that makes sense.

Crandall: Your award-winning piece, “Poet as Meyer Lemon Tree they Keep Forgetting to Water,” has an exquisite title. What inspired it?

Fetherolf: It is honestly pretty literal, at least to my mind! I wrote the poem at a time when I was trying to write a new poem every day. Most of my poems focused on the world that was right in front of me. On that particular day, I was writing about the Meyer lemon tree that I keep out in my little outdoor alleyway space.

The tree made me feel guilty. I loved it so much. It was a small, eager tree that didn’t ask for much of anything. It would cover itself in these beautiful, scented blossoms, and with a very minimal amount of care, all those flowers would turn into enormous yellow-orange lemons. And still, I couldn’t manage to give it that minimal amount of care. I would think about it a lot, but I would never get around to actually filling up the watering can and bringing it a drink. All the blossoms withered and fell off. It felt like a deep failure in myself.

For me, that’s how I experience depression more generally—not as sadness, but as this sense of inertia, an inability to do the simple thing that would nurture the eager and generous parts of myself. When I started drafting this poem, I realized I identified more with the tree than with the poet who doesn’t water it. That person who does not water the tree felt like almost an outside force, some other self that prevents me from taking steps toward providing care for myself or the world around me. That’s why I tried to give the poem a title that immediately sets up a confusion between poet and tree, between the one who keeps forgetting to provide the basic, necessary care that sustains life and the one who needs that care to survive.

Crandall: I love how you mentioned the “bluelight” of screens throughout your poem. What effect do you think technology has on modern art? Are there other inhibitors to modern poets and poetry?

Fetherolf: This is such a good question! I’m honestly not anti-technology as a whole, and I think there are certainly a lot of advantages to being able to connect with many communities through technological means. I think it has been especially good for poetry in many ways, since it can allow more voices into the mix with fewer gatekeeping institutions standing in the way.

And yet, on a personal level, interacting with the technological world usually feels kind of awful. I start to feel so trapped in the blue light scroll, unable to take agency over my own brain or my own time. This is especially true when I am already in a state of depression or numbness. For me, the constant newsfeeds create an intense sense of helplessness, disguised as a sense of control. There’s this feeling that if I can just collect enough information, read enough perspectives, find the right words to describe the endless disasters—if I can do that, it will somehow fix everything. And instead, it just reinforces the numbness that encourages more scrolling.

Over time, the endless scroll can have effect on the psyche where everything starts to feel like part of the screen. That was something I was trying to get at in “Poet as Meyer Lemon Tree”—the way the blue light of the screen seems to pervade the rest of the world in such moments. And I do think that can inhibit creativity. It can flatten out the sense of what is possible.

Crandall: Your poem tells the story of decline and does a great job communicating the feeling of being trapped. With the speaker’s ownership in the lines “my artificial floor / my round solid mirror,” self-imposed suffering comes to mind. What role does self-limitation play in the creative process? Do you think it is solely negative and can it be overcome? How can the poet remember to water themselves?

Fetherolf: I like your framing of this question. I think there are different forms of self-limitation, and no, it’s not always negative. Setting limitations for myself can be an important form of self-care, which is a very different thing from self-imposed suffering. As I alluded to earlier, I don’t know if this poem is really about self-imposed suffering, or at least it is more complicated than that—it’s about a kind of suffering that might look self-imposed from the outside, but that still feels awfully hard to end when you’re in it.

I mentioned earlier that I was writing a poem every day when I drafted “Poet as Meyer Lemon Tree.” This did not come naturally to me. The only way I could keep up with it was to accept that most days, I was going to write something very bad. And this act of writing bad poems in itself was healing. It became an exercise in releasing my perfectionism—a very insidious form of self-limitation that has always played a major role in how I limit my art. I guess this means that my answer to “how can the poet remember to water themselves?” is: it might not be so much about remembering, as it is accepting that it’s boring and daily, and that it’s going to be deeply imperfect. And it’s still important to do.

Author Bios

Elina Kumra is the author of the forthcoming Lodestar (2024) and Paradiso (2024). First Prizes with Marin County First Prize Poet, Third Coast, Reed Magazine and Beyond Words. Honored by Scholastic Writing with over 20 Gold and Silver Keys. She has been published in Peatsmoke, Reed Magazine, One Art, Up North Lit, Writer’s Digest, StreetLit, Coffin Bell, Polyphony Lit, Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine, Variant Lit, Quibble, Death Rattle, Typishly, Cathexis NorthWest Press, Tint Journal, and the Peauxdunque Review. She is Reed Magazine‘s 2024 Emerging Writer Winner. Second Place California Youth Poet Laureate. Her essays have appeared in Quibble Lit. Her primary goal is to tackle illiteracy by promoting equity and accessibility within the educational system. Elina is the EIC and founder of VelvetPoets. She is currently focusing on A Brush on Recovery — a 501(c)(3) non-profit which seeks to promote mental health and opiate recovery through poetry. @velvetpoets twitter x: Elinakumra1

Sara O. Fetherolf (she/they) is the author of Via Combusta (New American Press 2022). They won the 2021 Iron Horse Long Story award and they have written text for song cycles and short operas that have been performed around the country. Their writing appears in publications like Best Microfiction 2023, Gulf Coast, New Ohio Review, Storm Cellar, and Gigantic Sequins. She lives in California.