Beyond the Lake Prize: “Preserved Embryos” by Anita Koester

We asked the winners of the 2016 Lake Prize (featured in our Winter 2017 issue) about their work and the inspiration behind their stories. Read about all of the fiction finalists and the poetry finalists.

Poetry winner Anita Koester discusses her piece “Preserved Embryos.”

Anita Koester: About a week before I wrote this poem I visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago with my nephews. We spent a considerable amount of time inside the room that explains the process of fetal development. I hadn’t been to that exhibit since I was a child, and I was thrown emotionally into this in-between space – remembering being a child and seeing actual embryos and fetuses for the first time, and watching my nephews walk up to these glass cylinders and ask their mother what had happened to these babies. My sister, who was studying to become a nurse at the time, took her boys through the exhibit from the beginning carefully explaining to them the journey from fertilized egg, to embryo, to fetus, to baby. I marveled at her calm explanations, both scientific and maternal, while I could barely put together a sentence, the room felt overwhelmingly sacred and haunted. A place where you either stay quiet or sing.

In the adjoining room there is a immersive video where you feel what it might sound like and feel like to be inside of a womb, listen to your mother’s heartbeat, and the voice-over explained that it wasn’t total darkness in the womb but that there was light. This idea made me tremble, paired with the information that embryo meant “to swell,” I knew I had to write a poem about this moment. I remember my youngest nephew not wanting to leave the room where it sounded like being inside the womb, it was almost like he could still remember. And just before we left, my oldest nephew asked his mother how all these embryos and fetuses had died, and this is what I had been wondering quietly. I’d already been writing about the female body, about uteruses and ovaries, and my own longings to have children which was coupled also with my fears. But this experience gave me a new framework to process those feelings. A week later, I arrived at a residency in Michigan with this poem already brewing inside of me and I locked myself away in a room on the first day and wrote “Preserved Embryos.”

Purchase a copy of the Winter 2017 issue of Midwestern Gothic.


Anita Olivia Koester is a Chicago poet. She is the author of the chapbooks Marco Polo (Hermeneutic Chaos Press), Apples or Pomegranates forthcoming with Porkbelly Press, and Arrow Songs which won Paper Nautilus’ Vella Chapbook Contest. She is the poetry editor for Duende. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Vinyl, Tahoma Literary Review, CALYX Journal, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her poems have been nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize, and won the Jo-Anne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Award as well as the First Night Evanston Poetry Contest. She is the recipient of the Bread Loaf Returning Contributors Award and her writing has been supported by Vermont Studio Center, Art Farm, and Sundress Academy for the Arts. Anita is also an artist and photographer, her work is published or forthcoming in SKY+SEA Anthology, Paris Lit Up, Photographer Forum’s Best of Photography 2016 and elsewhere. Visit her online at

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