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Literary Spotlight: Shark Reef

This inspired literary journal is powered by lyrical writers and strong voices, not the whims of modern publishing trends.

Photo by Ben Malay
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Shark Reef takes its name from a reef located in a nature sanctuary on Lopez Island, in Washington state. The reef is beautiful and wild, like many of the pieces that appear in this 18-year-old literary journal founded by writers on Lopez and surrounding islands.

“We’re very welcoming to new writers, whether they’re older people who’ve always wanted to write and decide to go for it, or young writers just starting out,” explains Managing Editor Stephanie Barbé Hammer.

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One of these emerging writers is Dahna Cohen, whose piece about struggling with bulimia, titled “Emergence,” appears in the spring 2019 issue.

“It’s so visceral that it’s almost unreadable, but it’s also really brilliant,” says Barbé Hammer. “It’s a wonderful example of getting us to think about something that’s very horrifying in certain ways, while using beautiful language to get us there.”

Tone, editorial content

Shark Reef’s editors look for strong and authentic poetry and prose from people who represent marginalized demographics and write from personal experience, without regard for publishing trends. For poetry submissions, editors gravitate toward a reflective tone, and often the submissions they publish are nature-related. “If you’re a poet who does that kind of work, you might want to send it to us,” Barbé Hammer says, noting that she appreciates a lyrical voice in fiction and nonfiction as well.


Alexis Rhone Fancher, well-known as a poet, has a short story in the summer 2018 issue. In “Visiting My Ex-Lover’s Cabin Twenty Years After the Affair,” she explores the theme of sexuality as an older adult. “People appreciated that she wrote about sex as an older person, and not from the perspective of someone who’s 20,” Barbé Hammer says. “She’s such a lyrical writer; she can write about uncomfortable moments and embarrassing situations, and make them seem very beautiful.”


Contributors to Shark Reef include both emerging and established writers. Polish writer and professor Ewa Mazierska has a short story, “Grandpa’s House,” in the spring 2019 issue. “It’s about a girl who lives with her grandfather, full of questions about their house, which was built by a Nazi industrialist,” Barbé Hammer says.

Ellen Estilai is a poet and essayist; her nonfiction piece “Persian Lessons” (summer 2018) tells of living in Tehran for nine years and witnessing the growing anti-American sentiment along with increased violations of human rights in Iran. She begins:


“It was my need to belong that drove me to learn Persian.

I prided myself on my command of the idiom. The secret

to my steep learning curve was pretending. Make-believe

was my major strategy. I was not content to merely memorize

verb conjugations and the uses of the subjunctive. My tactic

early on was to convince myself that I was Iranian.”


In the same issue, writer and teacher Lita Kurth has a poem titled “View from the Bottom of the Hourglass Economy.” In it, she reflects on the economic poverty affecting people in the U.S. She writes:

“I can feel past my wallet
almost all the way
to “Five Guys Burgers”
big red letters
not today
maybe payday”

Barbé Hammer notes that she’s interested in work that features the experiences of ordinary people – pieces like “Elephant Shoe,” by Dwight Livingstone Curtis.

“It’s about a couple that goes camping and they stop for gas, then they have the usual problems setting up a campsite,” she explains. “They’re totally average people, but they have such a complicated and strange and creepy relationship that’s also deeply romantic. That romance gets unpacked during the camping trip. There’s a lot to their relationship; it’s a wonderful story.”


Advice for potential contributors

Shark Reef editors make it easy for potential contributors to study examples of their preferred genre in the magazine; the current issue always appears online for free. Barbé Hammer appreciates a cover letter that lets editors know where writers live, where they’ve published, and whether they speak various languages.

Often, even if the editors have rejected a piece of writing, they’ll send a note explaining what they enjoyed about it, along with suggestions for revision. This is, Barbé Hammer says, because of the influence of one of the journal’s founders, Lorna Reese, who believes in treating writers with respect and kindness, always.

“We’ve had people rejected by the magazine writing to thank us for lovely rejection letters. I just love that,” Barbé Hammer says. “The writing world can be pretty unkind some of the time. We take the time to be encouraging.”



Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Web: