Virtual Reading: “Lebanon on a Map” by Stephanie Papa
Written by: Katya Cummins

As some of you might know, we usually conduct brief interviews with our Niche contributors  after an issue as been released. This year, we’re doing something a little different. As a way to “preview” the next issue of Niche, I’ve asked our forthcoming contributors to conduct “virtual readings,” so to speak, to record themselves reading their work either on audio or video. Our contributors have very kindly agreed. Therefore, I am so excited to be posting our first virtual reading in this series. Please click below to hear Niche contributor, Stephanie Papa reading her poem ‘Lebanon on a Map,” which is forthcoming in Niche No. 6 due out in September/October of this year.

Stephanie Papa is a poet and translator living Paris, France. She is completing an MFA degree in Poetry from the Pan European program at Cedar Crest College. She is poetry co-editor of Paris Lit Up magazine. Her work has been published in NOON, great weather for media, Four Chambers Press, Paris/Atlantic, Literary Bohemian, 5×5, Rumpus, Cleaver Magazine, Cerise Press, The Prose Poetry Project. She organizes anglophone writing workshops in Paris.






NICHE:  I always like to start at the beginning. When did you begin writing poetry and why?

STEPHANIE PAPA: I must have been about 8 years old, at least I remember writing  poems at that age. The question “why” I was writing didn’t occur to me, but because my mother is a writer, books were everywhere. My mother insisted on a building bookshelf that reached the ceiling, so we were surrounded. Exposure to poetry was unavoidable. As a child I fell in love with writers like Maurice Sendak, A.A.Milne, Edward Lear, Roald Dahl.  I started writing poetry a bit more seriously–or badly–as a teenager. Then in college, I had a wonderful professor, Peter Sharpe, who introduced me to some of my favorite writers today.

NICHE: We’re thrilled to be publishing “Lebanon on a Map” in the next issue of Niche. I found your poem very accessible.  As a poet, how accessible do you believe poetry should be? Do you believe readers should work hard at “solving a poem?”

STEPHANIE PAPA: Thank you, I’m very flattered to see it in Niche. I think poetry should be accessible in a way that it allows the reader to access it’s many dimensions. Paul Muldoon was quoted to say that he’s writing “difficult poetry for a difficult age.” We don’t live in simple times. In fact, things are more complex in so many ways.  I think poetry should reflect the complexity of reality, even if the poem seems very obvious and straight forward on the surface. No good poem is handed over too easily. A strong poem for me has a force, or forces, driving it, and you may have to feel around in the dark for the light switch a bit. I love sparse poems that feel accessible, as long as they have multi-dimensional qualities, just like a living thing.  I gravitate towards Asian poetry–Han Shan, Tu fu, Li Po, Issa–because they tend to master this. So, it’s not so much solving the problem of the poem, maybe there’s nothing to solve. It’s more about how many dimensions it has, “parting the grasses,” as Jane Hirshfield puts it; exploring the expansiveness of a poem.

NICHE: One aspect I admired about “Lebanon on a Map” is how effortlessly you seem  to portray, not just one state of mind, but three minds. As a reader, I’m given a sense of what each person in this restaurant wants from all the others. As readers, are we meant to fill in the narrative there?

STEPHANIE PAPA: I suppose the other characters present in the poem act as flags or signposts. Even if they’re not aware, I think they’re both trying to reveal something to the narrator, trying to tell her something. They almost urge her to realize the present moment she occupies.

NICHE: Your poem seems to convey a sense of removal or distance. For instance, the “you” quotes an idea that isn’t his/her own. The narrator doesn’t share  his/her thoughts with her companion, and the waiter shows the diners where Lebanon is on a map even though the restaurant is in another country. I  guess, “displacement” is the word I’m looking for. It is an interesting feeling to get from this poem since all the “mysterious” items the narrator thinks of are so concrete. As a writer, I know that we often write from a place of emotion and figure out what we’ve written afterwards, but in this case, was displacement a feeling you wanted to convey?

STEPHANIE PAPA: In a way, yes. This poem for me was describing these moments when you might ask yourself, how did I end up here? Could it have been any other way? In the poem, it was a seemingly banal circumstance, but being in this nondescript situation makes perfect sense, that it’s necessary even. The narrator has to accept that, without rationalizing it. The list in the poem is simple and complex at once, a contradiction I think we face all the time.

NICHE: Lately, certain genre lines have been blurred. In your opinion, what distinguishes poems from prose-poetry, or even micros that rely heavily on imagistic techniques?

STEPHANIE PAPA: I tend not to be too worried about splitting the two cleanly. It’s like sexuality, ethnicity or…insert your own ‘ity’. The borders aren’t clear at all,  and it would be boring if they were. It reminds me of an early Frank O’Hara poem, “Oranges.” He talks about a poem he starts to write: “It is even in/prose, I am a real poet. My poem/is finished and I haven’t mentioned/orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call/it ORANGES.” Many other New York School poets blurred the line between prose and poetry, and it’s vibrant, I think. However, form would certainly be an indicator as to what genre a piece would fall into, if you want to plunk it somewhere. Poetry can be more exact in this way, the line and form helps the poet be more precise

NICHE: What can you tell us about the teen workshop that you conducted this past April at the American Library in Paris?

STEPHANIE PAPA: I learned so much from the students at that workshop,  both the younger children and teens. The children were so sensitive and imaginative, and it came out in their writing. When I asked them what their idea of poetry was, for instance, one of the girls said, “you can do what you want.” That might be my new motto. We did lots of hands on exercises with things in nature; texture, smell, shape. Some of them couldn’t stop writing, and they’d thrust their arms up to share their poems. But I especially liked working with children of various learning paces and individual difficulties. Sometimes this made for the most interesting writing. It taught me to be more patient, to listen. Also, there was popcorn.

NICHE: Along those same lines, do you have any advice for aspiring poets out there?

STEPHANIE PAPA:  I’ll steal a line from my mentor: “Marry someone rich.” He was kidding…I think. As I’m also learning and looking for advice, I can only offer the same constructive nudges I give myself.  For example, I try to remember to  stay curious, and enjoy it. Even if the writing is dark or difficult, I should be compelled to write it. If I’m not compelled or enjoying it, I might have taken a wrong turn.  I also have different readers who I trust and respect, I always learn a lot from a fresh eye. Also believe in your work, don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid, period.

NICHE: What are you working on now?

STEPHANIE PAPA: I’ve finished a collection of poems that I hope to publish. I’m also enjoying translation, especially films, from French to English. In September, I’ll be travelling to the Philippines for a music project. I find that travel really inspires me to write. I’m also looking forward to collaborating with new writers and artists.

NICHE: What about translation in particular interests you?  What films are you interested in translating?

STEPHANIE PAPA:  I’d say that everything about translation interests me. I wrote a series of poems about a trip to Brazil, and I asked a Brazilian poet to translate them into Portuguese for me. He was so attentive to convey not the same word but the same feeling in Portuguese, so that the poem’s natural ethos came through. In the end, it’s probably better than my original. Poetry itself is translation in a way, from thoughts to the page. So translation is just another way to reinterpret the beauty of the original, to transfer the meaning. With film, the screenplays are very varied. But it happens that for the most part, I’ve translated scripts with bold, forceful subject matter, that push the boundaries in some way.

Be sure to check out Stephanie Papa’s other work at


Tips On How to Write a Professional Bio
Written by: Katya Cummins

With another cycle of submissions read, I figured it was about time that I write up a quick note regarding author bios. Niche is not the type of literary magazine to judge writers on the basis of where they’ve published previously. Generally, I read an author’s bio after I’ve read a submission. This is because I believe that where a writer has previously published rarely correlates with whether a writer possesses talent or will continue on to ‘make it.” Though it is true that bios that list previous publications make us go, ‘oh, okay,’  they generally aren’t the first things we look at. With that being said, however, we do eventually look at the bios, and whether or not we like to admit it, how a bio reads tells us a lot about  a contributor’s level of professionalism. Please let me emphasize that I do not dismiss submissions from writers who have sent us unprofessional bios because I’ve been there. When I was nineteen or so, I may or may not have sent a very known literary magazine a bio that may or may not have stated that I was really, really, really, really hoping to be accepted into the Iowa Workshop. Don’t do that. Follow these simple guidelines instead.


  • Place personal information in bios that doesn’t directly pertain to your professional career as a writer. We do not want to know that you dropped out of college to write full time. We do not want to know that you’re a recovering alcoholic or drug addict. We do not want to know that you live with twenty cats. We do not want to know that you’re currently living in a basement. These insights into a writer’s life are intriguing but we rather read fictional or nonfictional pieces about these particular aspects of your life. This is an example of the kind of bio we mean:

 Arnold Kenny cannot wait to graduate, mostly because he is out of groceries and is far too lazy to buy some more. His favorite woman in history is Martha Washington, and his favorite historical man is Johnnie Walker. 

  • Place 10-50 publications in a bio. If you’ve published well, congratulations, truly, but we don’t need to know about all of them. Generally, all you need to do is summarize your most recent publications or accomplishments. Alternatively, you can simply list the publications in magazines that we’ll most likely recognize. Here are examples of what what we mean:


Amber McAlester has been published in several literary magazines. Most recently, she’s been published in The Sycamore Review, The Sun, and the Hayden-Ferry Review.


Dan Hay graduated from the Iowa Workshop. He has been published in [list three to five recognizable literary magazines you’ve been published in]: Tin House, Ninth Letter, and N+1. His memoir “How I Managed to Publish So Well” is forthcoming from W. W. Norton. 

  • DO NOT lie about your publications. I cannot believe people do this but they do. We’ll say this again. Most literary magazines I know do not base their decisions on whether or not you’ve been published previously so please do not lie. It is okay to say that you haven’t published previously. We, and other editors of literary magazines we know, love discovering and publishing new voices. Therefore, a cover letter to us could look like this:

 Dear [Genre Editor]:

Please consider “[name of piece]” for inclusion in the next issue of Niche.

If accepted, this will be my first publication.

Thank you for your time, and consideration.


[Your name)


If your piece is accepted, and you’re asked to send an updated bio then it is okay to send something like this:

Anna Dubrov lives and writes from California. She graduated with degrees in Psychology and Philosophy from UC Berkley. This is her first publication.


Mary Stewart writes from Scotland. This is her first publication.


As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Elise Cohen was the recipient of the Junior Quinn Scholarship, and Charles and Susan Shattuck Prize in Poetry. She was also awarded entrance into the Juniper Writing Institute at UMass-Amherst. This is her first publication.



Publishing under a different name. In my opinion, it is better to write a bio under your actual name. If the piece is later accepted, let the literary magazine know that you rather publish under a pseudonym. This way, if you DO have a list of publications, they can work for you.

Of course there are exceptions. There are some literary magazines that like fun and more personal bios. Usually these magazines will say, “in your bio, tell us something fun about yourself,” or they’ll say, “We don’t like boring bios. Make it fun.”  If you’re ever in doubt as to whether you should or could submit a “fun” bio then read the types of bios that previous contributors have submitted.

With us, it is totally okay to ask. If your work is accepted and we ask for a bio and you don’t know what to write then please ask. We won’t think less of you. We’re cool. We get it. Just send us a bio, and say, “I wasn’t sure what to write. Feel free to edit.” We will revise the bio, send it back, and ask if our revision is okay. After all, it is your bio. It represents who you are and your accomplishments.

Do you have other questions about how to construct a professional bio? If so, leave your questions in the comment section and we’ll respond!

An Interview with Matt Tompkins
Written by: Katya Cummins

Souvenirs and Other Stories | Matt Tompkins | Conium Review | SBN 978-1942387060 | June, 2016 | 79 pages

Brief Note From the Editor: Matt Tompkins is the author of Studies in Hybrid Morphology out now from tNY Press. His stories have appeared in Little Patuxent Review, New Haven Review, Post Road, and other journals. Conium Review published his newest collection Souvenirs and Other Stories earlier this month.

Lena Bertone, author of Letters to the Devil, described Matt Tompkins’ newest collection eloquently and succinctly: “With language that feels guileless and innocent, never overbearing, Matt Tompkins builds stories from delicate loops of life and metaphor, making the surreal become real. Amiable narrators talk to us like friends; with them, we discover worlds that turn ordinary life extraordinary—people evaporate, the world is set on fire. And then a different metamorphosis occurs right before our eyes when these genuine, open-hearted stories transform us into believers.”

I couldn’t have described this collection better myself. As a reader, I typically enter into speculative fiction with caution, aware of how most practitioners of this aesthetic forget to forge emotional connections between their readers and their narrators. Therefore, when the opening story of this collection, “The Water Cycle,” began with a father evaporating, I tensed a little. Then I read on, also aware of how talented writers are capable of making readers suspend disbelief regardless of how they’ve chosen to craft their fictional worlds. By the end of “The Water Cycle,” I was ready to listen to anything Tompkins’ narrators wanted or needed to tell me. I could sympathize with their losses, fears, and loneliness as they muddled through their bizarre and intense lives.

Tompkins’ language is understated, in the best sense, and never fails to influence emotionally. The centerpiece of this collection “Souvenirs” is perhaps the best example of what happens when an author successfully couples weird situations with precise language and potent emotions. When used effectively, these literary components can make us care, not about the mechanisms that are driving the story, but about the character within the story. Since “Souvenirs” is so expertly and tightly written, I will leave readers to experience that one for themselves. Besides, there are many other examples I can use. In “A World on Fire,” the narrator, Steve, frantic at seeing his world erupt into flames, spontaneously proposes to his very perplexed girlfriend. As he waits for the inevitable answer he sees, “still stunned, flames dancing around her head like cartoon stars.” In “Mel and the Microphones,” a lonely wife watches as her husband, a former sports commenter who is now suffering from advanced dementia, begins commenting on “the occurrences” of their daily lives, using the many microphones she’s set up for him. She tells us it is “the kind of chatter that says, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. The kind that reassures the speaker that she’s alive […] as if all the little moments—all the tiny details of your life—deserved attention, and documentation, and broadcast.” In a sense, this is what Tompkins’ newest collection accomplishes—it elevates the small and mundane things of the everyday and makes us look again and re-consider. Since I’ve also invited Matt to Niche Features to discuss his newest collection, I won’t give much more away here. Suffice it to say, “Souvenirs” is very worth a careful read and re-read.

NICHE: It is always nice to start somewhere near the beginning. How and why did you begin writing?

MATT TOMPKINS: I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. I have memories of writing poems (or trying to) in a spiral notebook in the backseat of my parents’ car when I was in grade school. But I started writing fiction, in earnest, when I was in college. I took an undergraduate creative writing workshop, and the required reading for the course included stories by Aimee Bender, Italo Calvino, and George Saunders. I remember being awed by their use of language, and thrilled by their willingness to infuse absurd and magical elements into “serious” literary work. So that was a lightbulb moment, when I remember thinking, this–this is something I want to do! It also seemed like something that fiction was uniquely well-situated to do: to communicate heightened emotional stakes and states, and to play them out by manifesting them against strange phenomena in the (fictional) world.

NICHE: One of the many things I admired about Souvenirs and Other Stories is how it unapologetically embraces quirkiness. I think one reason your stories draw readers in the way they do is because you consistently pair even the most bizarre events with universal and yet precise emotions. For instance, “The Water Cycle” is essentially about loss. One very potent sentence is, “My tears evaporated, and rose to join him [the evaporated father] in the sky. Then I think neither of us felt quite as lonely or as sad.” I loved that sentence. It is touching and weird and beautiful, and since you’ve kept a straight tone throughout, it isn’t overly sentimental either. Can you talk a little bit about the form, or literary aesthetic, for lack of a better word, that you’ve chosen to write this collection in?

MATT TOMPKINS: You’ve articulated, succinctly, my mission statement as a writer: pairing bizarre events with universal, relatable emotions. That’s exactly what I look for as a reader, and what I strive for as a writer: the concoction of an outlandish, fantastic circumstance, in which I can identify a completely familiar feeling. That recipe, simple as it is, combines the two things I love most about fiction: the possibility that absolutely anything might happen, and the ability to witness, recognize, and reflect upon our own and others’ invisible, internal states of being.

You’ve also identified the central tonal juxtaposition of these stories: fantastic occurrences (and emotional moments) recounted with a straight, matter-of-fact presentation. It’s my hope that the surreal events, and the emotional responses of the characters, will be more readily absorbed and felt by the reader when presented in the simplest possible manner. I find that, for me, nothing kills an atmosphere of strangeness quite like a sensationalized delivery. Likewise, nothing seems to get in the way of real feeling more effectively than maudlin melodrama. Of course, you wouldn’t guess that I felt this way if you read my early story attempts.

NICHE: In some cases, you tune the reader in to how your stories are functioning, or how they’re meant to be read. In “Seeking Advice and/or Assistance re: Mountain Lions,” for instance, we know from the title that at least one (maybe two) e-mails have been exchanged and that we, the readers, are being dropped in the middle of an e-mail thread. Then there are more explicit hints, like when the narrator tells his reader, “Please notice that I’ve not yet entirely lost my sense of humor.” As a writer, how do you decide when to go “meta,” in a sense, or how do you decide when it is necessary to lead readers through a particular work?

MATT TOMPKINS: I’m interested in the mechanics of storytelling, in how stories work, and I’m aware that a lot of fiction readers are also writers, or students of writing, and so I certainly don’t avoid the use of metafictional devices. I feel like, I know I’m writing fiction, and the reader knows they’re reading fiction, so there’s no need to pretend otherwise. But, at the same time, I want the reader to be engaged in the story, and to connect to it on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one. So, I try to have a clear purpose for any metafictional elements I’m using, to use them in service of the story, and to integrate them in as non-distracting a way as I can manage. Sometimes (as you mention with “Mountain Lions”) it’s a way to drop a reader right into the middle of the action of a story, without leaving them totally disoriented and disconnected from context–the literary equivalent of a sign post or navigational aid. Sometimes, as with the stories where there’s a kind of direct address to the reader (“The World on Fire” is one example), I use it (I hope successfully) as a way to draw the reader more personally into the story–to make them feel part of the telling, like a listener, rather than a detached observer. In theater terms, it would be an attempt to break the fourth wall. I don’t know quite to what extent I’ve succeeded–I guess that’s up to the experience of the reader to decide. But that’s my aim.

NICHE: Another element that I absolutely loved about this collection was the humor. All the humor “hit” exactly right. However, I’ve found that humor is one of those elements in fiction that is difficult to implement without overdoing it (being too slapstick) or underdoing it (being too dry). Can you talk a little bit about how you go about implementing humor in your work? Do you find that it appears naturally, or do you construct it consciously as pieces are re-worked and revised?

MATT TOMPKINS: Thanks! I’m happy to hear the humor landed right for you. Humor is so personal, you never know how it will (or won’t) connect.

Before I started writing fiction (and after my stint as an aspiring childhood poet), I wrote comedy. In high school, I wrote comic sketches with some friends, most of which were derivative of 90s sketch TV shows–The Kids in the Hall, The State, and The Upright Citizens Brigade. We would perform and videotape what we’d written, with aspirations of airing it on cable access television. I’m dating myself here, because cable access is probably something that no one under 30 has ever heard of. If you haven’t already gathered this, I was a nerd. I was anxious, introverted, and awkward, and, as it is for many awkward kids, humor was a refuge. When I got to college, I kept at it by joining an existing sketch comedy troupe. We wrote our own material, and once a semester we’d rent a theater for a weekend and put on a show. So by the time I started writing fiction, I had a lot of practice with humor. If anything, then, what I’m doing in my fiction is consciously toning down the comedy, trying to make sure that any humor I do include blends in, that it doesn’t overwhelm or detract from the heart of the story, and that it doesn’t feel too showy or “jokey.” I don’t want the reader to be yanked out of the story thinking, “Oh, this guy is trying so hard to be funny.” My hope is that any humor that makes the final cut will feel truthful (credit to Del Close), and become an integrated part of the emotional landscape of the story.

NICHE: I have silently and mentally given myself an answer to this next question, but I’m curious to know: How reliable or unreliable would you say most of your narrators are? I’m mostly curious because I see this question of reliability or unreliability linked to characters, most notably the ones in “BFF” and  “Souvenirs,” who appear isolated or lonely. Numerous other characters in your stories are unable to fully connect or understand one another. That’s just my interpretation  How do you view these ideas?

MATT TOMPKINS: My short answer to this question is, it’s about subjectivity. Each of the stories in this collection is a first-person narrative, and people are necessarily, unavoidably limited in their own perspectives, biased in their interpretations of events, and self-interested in their recountings and recollections. My intention is for my narrators to be as reliable as anyone you’re likely to meet, love, or be friends with. My intention is also for them to be as lonely, isolated, and imperfectly understood as anyone you might know–which is to say, generally, they are all of those things, at least to some degree, because as far as I can tell, all of us are all of those things. Each of these stories is a faltering (and, by nature, only partially successful) attempt to communicate and connect. So is, I think, every attempt at communication and connection. Anyone who says otherwise, who claims to be fully known, and truly expressed, and perfectly connected all the time, is probably lying. But the important thing, in my view, is to keep trying.

NICHE: You’re also a master at short form writing.  What draws you to micros as opposed to longer forms?

MATT TOMPKINS: First, that’s very flattering! Second, to answer the question-y part of this question, my gravitation to the short-form comes down to three t’s: topic, temperament, and time. It seems to me there are novel-sized topics (e.g. the rise and fall of an influential family over seven generations) and story-sized topics (e.g. this weird thing just happened, and this is how someone feels about it). The majority of my writing is of the latter topic-type: it tends to center on a single, focal event, and the inner life of a character, at a narrow point in time. Thoughts and feelings are fleeting–they tend to gather and dissipate, cloudlike–so brevity feels appropriate. I would rather write (or read) five pages about someone experiencing sadness, or anger, or confusion, than five hundred. Similarly, when it comes to the surreal, I find that suspension of disbelief is easier to sustain (without having to over-explain) over a shorter span. Of course, there are great, long novels written about characters’ inner states, and about surreal and fabulist events. So, maybe I’m just looking to justify my narrative nearsightedness, or short attention span (which brings us around to the second “t”: temperament). Personally, I hate multitasking. I am the first to admit I am terrible at it: I can only do one thing at a time well. A longer work means a broader scope, more characters and events to keep tabs on, and I tend to get overwhelmed if I feel like I’m spinning too many plates. I find a shorter story more manageable: I can complete a first draft, or do a full round of revision, in a single sitting, and I can give attention to every word. This is important to me because, like many writers, I’m also holding down a regular, full-time job, and trying to be a good spouse and parent (hence the third “t,” time). In order to keep my day job, and spend time with my family, I write in short, concentrated bursts. So the short form allows me to feel a sense of cohesion–I can hold the whole thing in hand at once. Likewise, I like a story I can read in one sitting and still have time to turn it over in my head. I think that’s important: I read because I’m looking for something to inform my experience; I read to reflect. If I run up against a thousand-page mountain of a book, I’m going to be spending more of my time trying to make vertical progress, so I’ll have less time to pause and reflect on the view (let alone remember where I started by the time I’ve finally reached the summit). Have I squeezed as much as I reasonably can out of that tired metaphor? Probably so.

NICHE: You’ve been published in several literary magazines, including Carolina Quarterly and Fiction Southeast, among others. You’re also an author of another book called Studies in Hybrid Morphology (tNY Press). What advice would you give aspiring writers who are looking to publish for the first time?

MATT TOMPKINS: This is commonplace wisdom, enough so that it’s a cliche, but I would say the best thing to do is to read a lot of literary magazines and journals. There are a ton of great publications out there, and many of them are available for free online, or browseable at libraries, so there’s really no excuse not to read widely. Reading journals is enjoyable, it’s a good way to lend support to your fellow writers, and it’s also the best way I’ve found to get a feel for the character and leanings of particular journals. Over time, you’ll come to identify those places that are hospitable to your particular literary flavor–to the type of stories (or essays, or poems) that you’re writing, and that you like and connect with.

Besides that, my best advice is just to keep at it. Keep writing, keep revising, keep submitting. Persistence pays.

NICHE: What are you working on now?

MATT TOMPKINS: Right now, I’m working on a surreal fictionalization of some of my childhood experiences. It’s not something that’s entirely new to me, digging into past experience and fabulizing it for story material. But I’m getting more expressly autobiographical than I’m used to, and have been writing in something closer to a hybrid fiction-memoir form, which is interesting territory to be exploring. I’m very comfortable writing fiction and completely out of my depth wading into memoir, so combining the two is allowing me to stretch outside of my comfort zone, while still keeping a foothold in the familiar. How it will turn out is anybody’s guess, but I’m enjoying the process!

Readers can buy a copy of Souvenirs and Other Stories from Conium Press, and follow Matt Tompkins on Tumblr