Synesthesia: Artist as Witness

Suzanne S. Rancourt photo

The following is a guest post by Suzanne S. Rancourt, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.


Being a witness, or artist, isn’t always a choice if one is gifted with what the western perspective calls “a perceptual phenomenon,” i.e., Synesthesia. I have always stated, as Artists we have a responsibility to take note and “report” via whatever art making modalities we have available to us; using our sensory tools to see, smell, hear, feel with our gut, (and flesh i.e., air displacement,) what is happening in our immediate environment.   

Some cultures and/or practices refer to the phenomenon of activated sensory systems as Zanshin, situational awareness, or hypervigilance. As a trauma survivor, and practitioner, I have heard and seen the negative connotations ascribed to a hypervigilant state. Transmuting these negative connotations, and in some cases the presentation of, to positive, productive skills, requires a supportive culture, environment, and practitioners to facilitate. I’m talking about practitioners competent in facilitating the neurologically calming, (cooling, quenching, tempering- the body, mind, and spirit,) artmaking modalities. Let our narrators tell the stories through whatever artmaking modality the story emerges from.  i.e., writing, singing, pottery, stacking wood, painting, dance, martial arts, hiking/nature.  For example:  I use Aikido, Iaido, and time in nature to facilitate this transmutation of trauma skill sets into tools for life and art making. I do my best to implement teachings from my Indigenous Ceremonies, childhood, rural upbringing- all of which emphasize inner stillness and practice. 

Synesthesia is a tool that an Artist can hone and employ, thus, better facilitating the reader, and audience’s, ability to experience, and relate to the art being presented. Synesthesia can be something we were born with or developed post- traumatic event. Transmutation takes time and guidance to better differentiate the after effects of a Traumatic Brain Injury, or the residual of “near death experiences.”  I had to return to memories of when I felt safe and whole. Through writing I began to remember the natural world. I got back into recovery because I needed to reconnect with natural abilities. I had the help of mentors, and friends. I kept writing without the critic- voice interfering. i.e., free writing, journaling. I continued singing and songwriting which worked my auditory responses from the inside out. I used my hands, hiked, swum miles upon miles, all this bringing my body, mind, and breath into a wholeness where I felt safe enough to engage with memories and all of my senses. I had lots of help along the way – both formally and informally. 

Artist as Witness: experience fully, record, and report through whichever art making modality our response to a given situation emerges from. Allow ourselves to meld our abilities as Artists and Witnesses with, and through, Synesthesia.


Sundress Best of the Net Nominee, Suzanne S. Rancourt, is of Abenaki/Huron descent. Author of Billboard in the Clouds, Northwestern UP, received the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas First Book Award, and murmurs at the gate, Unsolicited Press, released in 2019. Old Stones, New Roads, Main Street Rag Publishing, is forthcoming Spring 2021. She is a USMC and Army Veteran who holds degrees in psychology, writing and expressive arts therapy. Suzanne is widely published.  Please visit her website for a complete publication list: @FlameSuzy

About “Beirut, Summer 1982”

From the painting Lebanon by Nabil Kanso 1983

At left: A fragment from Lebanon, a painting realized by Nabil Kanso in 1983, expressing the horror of the Lebanese civil war.  

The following is a guest post by Soraya Qahwaji, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.


The basement scene depicted in my poem “Beirut, Summer 1982” could have happened at almost any time of the fifteen-year long Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. I chose to situate it during the summer of 1982 as an allusion to the siege and carpet-bombing of Beirut by the Israel Defense Forces. This choice was inspired by an American friend who once told me: “I understand Israel, because the people around Israel are Nazis.”

I was surprised by such a piecemeal statement that demonized and justified the killing of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese, and condoned practices such as occupation, torture and ethnic cleansing. In the Western political narrative, the rhetorical function of comparing a group of people – especially Arabs –  to Nazis, is to imply that their lives don’t matter, and that protections granted by international law and human rights conventions should not apply to them. I wasn’t expecting to hear that from my friend, a graduate of a very liberal – and very expensive – college, and a convert to Buddhism who believed in practicing compassion towards all beings and was planning to become a monk in the Thai forest tradition. I decided to take the incident as a testimony to the hold of negative representations of Arabs on the American mind, especially the younger generation.

My friend had just begun elementary school when the twin towers were attacked. He has been exposed to negative depictions of Arabs for all his life, which has conditioned his mind in a way that his Buddhist values and practice has been powerless to remedy. I felt the need for a counter-narrative. Not a counter-narrative that would fall into the trap of tit-for-tat and demonize Israel or its army – neither are mentioned in the poem – but a counter-narrative that would humanize “the people around Israel.” What I hoped to achieve is forcing the humanity of the victims onto those who deny it.

Beirut, Summer 1982 is also my Ars Poetica. Deep down, I am that mother who wants to comfort and entertain her children, at the risk of her own sanity. This, to me, is the essence of poetry: providing spiritual and moral sustenance. One of the most poetic things I’ve recently heard was on a BBC documentary on Chinese “reeducation camps” for the Uyghur minority in East Turkistan. One Uyghur inmate had written on the bathroom wall: “Oh my heart, don’t break!” The writing itself was not shown on camera, so as not to endanger its author. You could say that the sentence is trite and cliché. The language is unsurprising, the picture, juvenile. But whoever wrote that sentence was trying to remain spiritually, morally and psychologically alive in the face of extreme circumstances. This is poetry. 


Soraya Qahwaji is a writer of whom nothing is known. Now let’s look at her essay.

Writing While Black in a Year of Protest

The following is a guest post by Shawn R. Jones, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.


I sat down to write a few days after George Floyd’s murder, and never had the writing process felt more precarious. In 2019, it seemed so clear. I understood what I wanted to say and who I wanted to speak for, but more recently, my mind has been fraught with hurt, rage, and disappointment.

I am not sure who I am writing for now. Am I writing for Black people questioning their place in America, for my white neighbors whose hellos are suddenly more of an apology than a greeting, or for people who are speaking to me for the first time? 

For instance, my husband and I have been living in a predominantly white neighborhood for over a decade. There are a few neighbors who have refused to speak to us. However, a few days after Floyd’s murder, one of these neighbors pulled up beside us and asked how we were doing. I wanted to respond, the same way we have been for the past 401 years. I wasn’t sure if I should be thankful that she had finally decided to speak or angry that she hadn’t “noticed” us before.

I spoke back, with a hello that had a silent uh… in front of it and a question mark behind it. You see, I had stopped speaking to her because she had never responded and also because I had assumed she was the one who had written, “Niggers Go Back to Africa,” on the asphalt in front of our home. It was an assumption I made based on a gut feeling I have learned to rely on in environments where people can hate me and smile at me at the same time and others can hate me so much that they refuse to speak or smile at all.

In this racial climate, I don’t know what to expect from some white people any more than they know what to expect from me. I rely heavily on a gut feeling when I need to decide who I can trust. Thus far, that feeling hasn’t failed me. I don’t think I have a special mojo. However, I am convinced that many black people can feel racism without anyone even looking in their direction because racism feels more like a being, a spirit that prowls around our country, searching for a host.

So, how do we write about racism? How do we decide who our audience is? As I write this, I am asking myself those same questions while also understanding that sometimes we need to protect our mental health by not writing about events that disturb us. However, if you are compelled to do so, write a visceral response to a racial injustice you have witnessed this year.  Revise later. If you feel ready, choose an incident, and write without worrying about what people are going to think about you.  Become a gutsy writer, and write what you need to write for your own liberation. After you give your piece an honest voice, your audience will show up. 


Shawn R. Jones is a writer from South Jersey. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Womb Rain (Finishing Line Press 2008) and A Hole to Breathe (Finishing Line Press 2015). Her poetry chapbook, Womb Rain, is #61 in Finishing Line Press’ New Women’s Voices Series. Her poetry has also appeared in Essence, Challenges for the Delusional, River Heron Review, and Guesthouse. She has poetry forthcoming in Peregrine Journal. Her debut short story, “The Life that You Saved” was recently published by Obelus Journal. Shawn is the owner and operator of Tailored Tutoring LLC and Kumbaya Academy, Inc. She is also a 2019 graduate of Rutgers-Camden’s MFA Program. Twitter: @shawnrjones1

The Practice of Seeing

The following is a guest post by James Miller, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.


We have a long global tradition of writing about visual art—ekphrasis. Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night” is an important one for me, a poem that captures her longing to dive into Van Gogh’s raw brushstrokes. Sexton seeks a more vivid and dangerous world, one ruled by a “great dragon” that demands absolute commitment to fearless creation.

Many ekphrastic writers follow a similar path. They begin in a self-conscious posture of looking, often at a framed masterpiece on the gallery wall. Their lines seek to animate static images with floods of association, reflection, desire. But poets have also responded to films, theater, and music—all of which unfold across charged minutes. These are arts of entrance, sojourn and exit; to write about them, we explore the subjective experience of duration.

I thought about these ideas when I first saw Gerhard Richter Painting (2011), by German documentarian Corinna Belz. Her film privileges the artist in the studio, working. Mostly we stand behind Richter, waiting with him as he considers… reconsiders… doubts. And acts. He covers a massive canvas with broad swathes of black, yellow, red. Then he steps back, into stillness. Then he lifts a monster squeegee from the table, approaches his abstract slab of paint…and smears color from left to right, or ceiling to floor.

I gasped audibly the first time the squeegee came out. The first time the paint blurred and failed, dropped away to reveal layers of hidden texture, half-memories of a half-hour before, an hour, a day, a week. Part of what excited me about Richter’s method was the slow and steady pace of his movements. He seemed to lean into motion as if shifting a great weight, taking his time. This was far from the flippant wipe we sometimes see between scenes in an old action movie, or the unthinking everyday swipe so characteristic of social media… thank you, next! Richter’s patience was touched by a menacing quality: Let us see what is hidden, he seemed to say. And in so doing, let us distort and blur and misremember and forget. We do all of this willingly, with courage.

What did this film teach me about seeing? In my poem “Gerhard Richter Painting,” I tried to describe his decisive gesture, bringing forms into being while simultaneously defacing or obscuring them. As Richter worked, I thought of warehouses on the shores of memory, filled with piercing remnants of a life, or a culture, or an ecology. The artist can open the warehouse door, revealing an impossibly rich and suggestive jumble. But the artist must also close that door, perhaps wincing at the squeal of metal as it comes down, bringing darkness again to once cherished things.


James Miller is a native of the Texas Gulf coast. He won the Connecticut Poet Award in 2020, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Cold Mountain Review, The Maine Review, Lunch Ticket, The Atlanta Review, Thin Air, A Minor, Eclectica, Rabid Oak, pioneertown, Juked, North Dakota Quarterly, Yemassee, Phoebe, Mantis and elsewhere.

Cut It Out: Keeping Your Short Stories Short

The following is a guest post by Tyrel Kessinger, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.


When it comes to writing short stories, especially flash fiction, we simply have to keep in mind their leanness, their small tautness. There’s no time for long-winded passages or overwrought explanations, no time to waste in the bog. Instead, think of your writing as the striker of the proverbial hot iron. You need to hit hard, hit quick, and be swiftly shaping the heated elements into something worth a damn. To that end, I’d like to highlight a few places where you can start trimming the fat.

  • Don’t start at the beginning. Your first paragraph might seem like the place where your story starts but take another look at the second paragraph or the next one and evaluate if one wouldn’t better serve the story. With my own writing I often find that my opening paragraph, even after polishing, doesn’t always gel with the rest of the story.  After finding a writing groove with a story things can often change from how you started be it in tone or style or character development.
  • Drawing out on an inconsequential scene. No one needs to know how your character (let’s call her Greta) turns off her car, gets out of the car, opens the trunk by turning her keys in the lock to get the groceries out, walks the pathway to her door, puts her keys in the lock, opens the door, and yada yada yada. You can save yourself a lot of real estate by saying these things much more simply: “When Greta got home she grabbed her groceries and went inside.” 
  • Too much description. We don’t need three sentences describing what Greta’s car looks like or how hard it was raining when she went into the grocery store. Lengthy flashbacks and descriptions of dreams also apply here. It’s hard to use flashbacks properly without weighing down your story and no one cares about anyone’s dreams other than their own, even in a short story. This also bridges into my next point.
  • Over-explaining. Short stories ain’t got time for all that. You should trust, if you’ve done the rest of your job well, that your readers are smart enough to assume certain things going into the reading. Let’s say your story centers around a small town where one day a year all the animals in the vicinity gain the power to talk. There’s no need for a page long explanation. In this world, this is just a thing that occurs. We all know this is fiction and we know that anything can happen here.

Obviously, you should keep in mind that any and all of these very tenuous “rules” are meant to be broken at any time, especially if you can spin any of them in a fresh way. So if you feel something is vital to your story you should certainly keep it in. But if you feel like your writing is missing a certain zip or lively forward movement then these are some good places where you might find a bit of chaff.


Tyrel Kessinger lives in Louisville, Ky. He has two kids and one wife. You can find his work in a lot of places and forthcoming from Crab Creek Review and Washington Square.

Reading With Gloves On

Elana Gomel

The following is a guest post by Elana Gomel, whose short story “1991” appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.


Here is an image from my childhood: my mother reverently turning the onion-thin pages of a typewritten, amateurishly bound book. She has gloves on.

This is the USSR in the late 1970s. The book is George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four. It has never been published by a state press. It is never discussed by any critic. It is missing from literature textbooks. Orwell’s novel is not merely banned; it does not exist.

What my mother is reading is an illegal copy. Somebody secretly translated it, probably doing it late at night with the curtains drawn. Somebody else secretly typed it out on an ancient creaky typewriter. The copy is then transferred from one person to another along the whispered routes of underground dissent. The book needs to circulate, to reach as many people as possible. My mother only has it for one night. 

But eventually, somebody will say something to the wrong person who happens to be an informant. The KGB will swoop in, confiscate the typescript, and probably arrest people. They can lift fingerprints off the brittle paper to find out who has read it. This is why my mother is wearing gloves.

Another image, many years later: I am sitting on a bench in the sun, reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in English and fretting that the deadline for my term paper is coming soon, and my babysitter is sick. I am earning my BA in English literature, and my son is six months old. I underline a couple of paragraphs, but I have no fresh ideas. My subject is censorship, but my mind is on my baby.

And then I stop. Something is missing.

I don’t have gloves on.

In debates about freedom of speech and cancel-culture, a frequent argument of those who believe certain ideas should be censored is that words can do harm to vulnerable people, which in some cases is true. But words/ideas are also vulnerable and powerful. Manuscripts were hidden, smuggled, copied, and disseminated at the price of people’s freedom and sometimes their lives. When my mother – who was a writer herself – touched Orwell’s words with her gloved fingers, there was a gentleness to it as if she were trying to protect them from the brutality of the world. It was the same way she touched me.

In my story “1991”, the USSR exists not as it was but as it wanted to be – a utopia of equality and plenty. The price of this utopia seems to be small: do not read words that can separate you from your community, poison your mind, turn you into a monster. Isn’t one burned book a small price to pay for universal happiness?

Tattie, my protagonist in the story, thinks it is. I know she is wrong.


Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer. She has published six non-fiction books and numerous articles on posthumanism, science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. Her stories appeared in Apex, New Horizons, Mythic, and many other magazines, and were also featured in several award-winning anthologies, including After Sundown, Apex Book of World Science Fiction and People of the Book. Her story “Where the Streets Have No Name” was the winner of the 2020 Gravity Award. She is the author of three novels: A Tale of Three Cities (2013), The Hungry Ones (2018) and The Cryptids (2019). She has lived in four countries, speaks three languages, and has two children. She is a member of HWA.

Writing about Black Death in the Time of Black Lives Matter

Wendy Thompson Taiwo

The following is a guest post by Wendy Thompson Taiwo, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.


I began writing extensively about the conditions of black life and death in America after the murder of Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016. The killing that took place on that hot July night—a police officer drawing his weapon, a black man shot dead—was routine and yet different. I was living with my young daughter in St. Paul when I heard the news. All of us, black and living in a state that was both in the Great White North and just another South, would wonder what we had been doing in that exact moment he was executed in that car, and if next time, his fate could be our own. 

In Kwame Holmes’ essay, “Necrocapitalism, Or, THE VALUE OF BLACK DEATH,” Holmes writes that Philando “was killed in transit, on Larpenture [sic] Avenue…in the Chevrolet that would become his tomb.” Killed in transit. Chevrolet that would become his tomb. These words would haunt me deeply as a black woman who grew up in California in the 1980s and 90s and watched the grainy footage of the beating of Rodney King and the fiery Los Angeles uprising that followed on TV. Holmes’ words would also resonate with me as a horror film fanatic who could never get over that trope where the black character always dies first. As hyper aware as black folks are and have had to be in this country, it was always so difficult to watch black figures on screen be recklessly hacked to death in the first twenty minutes of a film.

How many generations had lived through attacks by nightriders, race riots, and lynch mobs? How many of us learned the contours of the dark, the smell of the swamp, how to stay one step away from death? There is not one sound, one shadow that our kinfolk would not know to avoid, not one suspicious person our grandmothers could not suss out.

Like a roomful of white screenwriters who decide to kill off the one black character first, white people have been writing black people in the New World to death using law, story, structure, and practice. But it is against this reality that many of us write about black life—before and after death—instead of erasure, nonexistence. In writing about black death right now amid a viral and racial pandemic, I am engaging in the black tradition of conjuring language to write ourselves—our love, our losses, our shame, our preexisting conditions, our innocence, our rage—into existence. And by following in the footsteps of my literary kinfolk who wrote to excise the figurative and actual monsters that haunted and hunted us, I too use words to kill what seemingly can’t be killed, in stories where we are the heroes and survivors, where we don’t just make it out alive but live through the sequel too. 


Wendy Thompson Taiwo is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at San José State University. Her writing has appeared in Typehouse, Mn Artists, Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, Nokoko, and numerous anthologies.

Waken to Your Poem

The following is a guest post by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.


As soon as I wake up, especially if I don’t set an alarm and just let myself rise when my sleep cycle naturally breaks, seeds of poems are waiting to be planted in my journal. I always choose a journal by its tactile quality. Velvet with lace, satin with ribbon, sometimes leatherette (don’t want to kill animals for my poems). I have far too many of these journals bowing my shelves, but I believe that my truest poems have come from what I’ve scrawled in them

Sometimes I write things I’ve glimpsed in dreams—coneflowers or hibiscus or a house with green shutters and tiny moons carved into the corners. Sometimes I can smell my mother’s Evening in Paris eau de toilette or the smoke from my father’s Lucky Strike. I have even awakened to the feel in my palm of Queenie’s oily, seal-like fur, a pet who has been dead for sixty years. I’ve tasted chocolate brownies, especially when I am on a diet.

One morning, I awoke to my husband’s voice, his breath, the genesis of my poem in Issue 20 of Typehouse, “Murmur,” which has a double meaning—his heart murmur and his murmuring. When I got over the shock that he wasn’t actually in our room, I wrote down what I heard him say, what I felt. And as the day progressed, I added reflections about the experience to the poem. 

“Murmur” means more to me over the last month. My husband had emergency open-heart surgery that left him so debilitated that he is in a nursing home. It is so hard for me to wake alone in our bedroom, but what helps me is to listen for him, and write.


Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Her essays have appeared in New York Times (Lives), Newsweek, and more. The Iowa Review, Permafrost, MacGuffin, and others have published her poems and short stories. Currently, she teaches writing at UCLA Extension. @rjshapiro

Learning to Delight in Form

Jessi Fuller Author Photo

The following is a guest post by Jessi Fuller Fields, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.


Religiously homeschooled until college, I grew up a famished reader. Though I had a constant stream of books in hand, the content was often more instructive than literary. I consumed nearly every title on the shelves at home from courtship manuals and Creationism guides to decades-old encyclopedias and Atlas Shrugged. Whenever we went on our semi-regular trip to the public, I chose a Holocaust memoir or A Tale of Two Cities. I avoided short books and graphic novels, the YA section and magazines. In my head, I’d constructed a strict idea of which books merited my attention. Memoirs were always allowed, as were historical novels. Anything remotely contemporary was off the table, unless it was by a Christian author. These were not rules explicitly expressed by my parents, but I thought them best to avoid conflict.

As an English major in college, I began to read more broadly. For the first time, I had friends and faculty to recommend books. I began developing more defined preferences in what I read, no longer choosing something for its instructional merit, but for sound, imagery, and story. It was words, I decided, that made a text. Then Dr. Trakas, my contemporary literature professor, assigned Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Listening to the audiobook, I fell in love with the story, the interwoven narratives, and the precocity of the child narrator. I came to class with pages of notes, prepared to discuss heavy boots and the aftermath of global disasters. Instead, all my classmates could talk about was how the text appeared on the page, something that had never before seemed important to me (see figure 1)

Page from extremely loud and incredibly lose

A classmate lent me their physical copy of the book and I peered inside. What I saw flummoxed me. There were pictures. There was handwriting. There were empty pages and pages with text piled onto itself. Words were not all that made the book. It was a visual experience as well. The more I read, the more I noticed this visual aspect drawing me in. I had never considered literature a visual art. Though I had always presumed writers worried away at words and artists manipulated images, that no longer seemed true. There was meaning to be found in how a text appeared on the page and I found myself needing to pursue that artistry deeper. Five years after finishing undergrad, I completed an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetry, where I learned to delight in poet-artists like Rachel Zucker, Diana Khoi Nguyen, and Claudia Rankine. From these women, I began to see poetry as an approach to writing which encompasses more than word choice. Their attention to the entire composition of their work shows us that all writers must consider their own work as a sensorial experience that focuses not only on the sound of words, but on the visual appearance as well. 

Figure 1.
From Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,
by Jonathan Safran Foer. 


Jessi Fuller Fields is a queer writer and poet from the US South currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.  She completed an MFA at Queens University of Charlotte in June 2020.  Her work explores silence, traumas, and the things best left unsaid. Twitter: @jfullerfields Instagram: @jessi.fullerfields