Robert Montgomery's "The Stars Pulled Down for Real" is excellent public poetry

Every Tuesday morning, we present a poem for you to enjoy, but this week we're going to do something a little different. I want to call a piece of public art to your attention. Robert Montgomery's poem "The Stars Pulled Down for Real" is the latest site-specific artwork at All Rise, the public art space located between Denny and John, down in the Denny Triangle. All Rise's website explains Montgomery's work as "confront[ing] a post-utopian current while echoing a full, at times romantic, chronology of a land divided, shaped, and built ever-upward."

I think "post-utopian" is maybe a bit too hopeful; I'd call it downright dystopian in places, with our love affair with the road described as "the beginning of a contagion" and people chastised as "ignoring the time of the ice cap melts" and wondering "how will they remember the oil age."

This site, remember, is on an incredibly busy road, a major exchange leading to I-5, and so in many ways it's science fiction colliding with the present-day city around it. This is a vision of a future generation struggling to remember the crisis that brought ruination upon them, right in front of a round-the-clock display of the technology that brought the ruination in the first place. In some ways, it's like Montgomery is putting up yellow crime-scene tape around a murder in progress.

But there's hope in there, too! Or at least an appreciation of "the city" as "a magical sculpture we live inside," even if Montgomery is envisioning the skyscrapers (which are at your back if you're reading the billboard) as a post-human landcape with eagles living ("not as symbols/just as eagles") on them as repurposed clifftops. The city will survive us. The city will always be put to good use, even if we're not around to be the ones who use it.

I know that last one is hard to read, but it's a reprisal of the text on the first billboard, only in lights: "Squares and squares of flame with memory inside them remembering the map under the flood water twist up the heartsongs of the dead into empty stadiums and all the stars pulled down now for real." After you read your way around the billboards, you arrive at the end, which is the beginning. Montgomery seems to be lamenting our loss, not damning us for losing everything. He's not quite Ozymandias, urging us to look and despair. Instead, he's demanding that we find the beauty in the world we're in the process of discarding.

"The Stars Pulled Down for Real" will be pulled down (for real) on September 5th, so you have less than a week to go enjoy it in real life. I'd encourage you to do so.

Even though Seattle is happily back to its normal grey drizzle, we can't forget that the eastern half of Washington is currently battling the worst wildfires in state history. We've already looked at how booksellers are surviving the fires, but here's a project that's worthy of your attention: every other day, Washington state Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen will publish a poem relating to the wildfires. Yesterday, she published a beautiful poem by William Stafford about the Tillamook Burn. Last week, she ran a poem called "Endless Summer" by SRoB contributor Kelli Russell Agodon.

Some of you may be wondering what poems have to do with wildfires. The answer is that poetry has to do with everything; Austen is raising awareness of a life-or-death issue in her capacity as our Poet Laureate. She is doing, in short, exactly what she should be doing: applying her mind to the problem and helping the public interpret the news, to give an unthinkable disaster a more human scale.

Some asshole at the Guardian who has never read one of Terry Pratchett's novels thinks Terry Pratchett is overrated. Yep, it's the same old boring "serious literature" conversation, with an added smear on a recently deceased author for good measure.

This is an obvious plea for attention, and you should ignore it. Go read a Terry Pratchett novel instead; if you're unfamiliar with his work, we recommend Mort or The Colour of Magic to get you started. If you think you really must read this asshole's incendiary comments, follow this Do Not Link link to the story to find out exactly how dumb it really is. But really, the correct response to dumb pieces like this is to ignore them. That's the only way that sites will stop running dumb clickbait. They're literally profiting off your outrage.

J.G. Perkins' The Announcers

This week's sponsor is Chatwin Books, and we're featuring the introduction and a full chapter from The Announcers, by J.G Perkins.

This is the first volume in Perkins' 19-volume Darkness Before Mourning, one of the largest series of serious fiction ever created by a single author. We're featuring the Introduction, and chapter 15, for you to read in their entirety.

For those who shared it, the American Dream was wonderful. I awakened from part of that dream early and watched, in one way or another, much of the rest of the country follow over several decades. Some are still asleep. Like many of the awakened, I found that my dream had elements of a nightmare. And while I treasure truth above all else, I envy those who are still dreaming.

Read both selections, and help us in our fight to make internet advertising something worth looking forward to.

Pronouns in space

Published August 31, 2015, at 12:01pm

Kate Macdonald review Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, and Nicola Griffith's Ammonite.

In the tradition of sci-fi novels reimagining the male/female dyad, Ann Leckie's "Ancillary Justice" delivers something new, suggesting that gender isn't necessary.

Read this review now

Over at the Theatrical Mustang podcast, I talked about the Seattle Review of Books with host Katie Woodzick. We also discussed diversity, why Seattle is such an amazing city for books, and the pleasure of not discussing Jonathan Franzen. I hope you'll give it a listen and then subscribe to Theatrical Mustang, which interviews all sorts of literary, theater, and musical types. Start with this interview with the wonderful Kathy Hsieh.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from the week of August 31 - September 6

MONDAY Our week begins at Elliott Bay Book Company, where the wonderful independent publisher Red Hen Press presents a group reading with Tom Janikowski,Amaranth Borsuk, and Patrick Milan. They’ll all read from their most recent titles. But this reading also features local author Elissa Washuta, author of My Body is a Book of Rules and, most recently, Starvation Mode. (You can read my review of the latter right here.) A reading from Washuta alone is reason to show up, but tonight you’ll get to see three other writers and support a fantastic small press.

TUESDAY It’s back to Elliott Bay Book Company for a 7 pm reading co-presented with Hedgebrook. Naomi Jackson presents her debut novel The Star Side of Bird Hill, about young sisters who move from Brooklyn to the Caribbean, where their grandmother lives. Jackson will appear with local poet Anastacia Tolbert, who graced the Seattle Review of Books with a wonderful poem last Tuesday.

WEDNESDAY Up at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Jamie Bianchini reads from A Bicycle Built for Two Billion, his account of riding around the world on a tandem bike. On his trip, Bianchini visited 81 countries in 7 years. He’s got a lot of stories from that experience and, presumably, he’s got a nice pair of legs to show for it, too.

THURSDAY At Third Place Books Ravenna, local artist Frida Clements reads from her book Have a Little Pun, which is a collection of illustrated puns, leaning heavily on the animal side of the pun spectrum. The promo copy for this event reads: “Having a bad hare day? Feeling a little antsy? What the hail, just dill with it, and for fox sake, have a little pun.” Just reading that will probably help you determine if this event is for you or not.

FRIDAY Ada’s Technical Books presents a different kind of writing event: the software company Cycling ’74 presents a reception and demonstration celebrating an updated version of their programming language, Max 7. There will also, reportedly be “swag.”

SATURDAY University Book Store presents Portland author Michael McGregor, author of Pure Act, which is a biography of minimalist poet Robert Lax. How minimalist? I’ll let Wikipedia spell it out: “Over the years the poems became more and more minimalist, sometimes consisting of single words, even single syllables, running down page after page, often in varying colors.”

SUNDAY Hugo House hosts the very first party for the gorgeous local online literary magazine Moss. Co-founders Connor Guy and Alex Davis-Lawrence will host, present four awesome readers (Rebecca Brown, Matt Briggs, Janie Miller, and Miriam Cook,) and talk about the future of Moss, which will involve a physical manifestation. This is the book party of the week, without question.

The big-hearted neurologist and author has died at age 82. If you'd like to try one of his books, the obvious place to start is The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, although if you're in the mood for a novel, Richard Powers's The Echo Maker features a Sacks-like writer. (Some have complained about the way Powers treated Sacks, but I respectfully disagree; in fact, my way into Sacks's prose came through The Echo Maker.)

The Sunday Post, for August 30, 2015

No Country for Young women

Erin Kissane on why she stopped reading fiction written by men, and movies with male protagonists: "I just got tired."

It’s not even that my politics quail at something I otherwise enjoy. I’m just stung and sad, and ashamed that I keep falling for the same trick. If a piece of fiction is made by and emotionally centered on men, chances are, it defaults to the belief that women are nothing but fuel. Doesn’t matter if I’m catching every reference and gleefully staying ahead of every jump. It will eventually declare that it’s not meant for me. Sometimes the women are missing, or just vacant; sometimes there’s a string of bloody bodies that look like mine. The point comes across.
The Price of Diversity

Colleen Muir wonders, over at the Rumpus, if expensive writing conferences can really lay claim to promoting diversity?

On the Bread Loaf website, the director of the conference claims to “foster stimulating communities of diverse voices….” Yet I wonder if Bread Loaf, or any other fee-charging literary institution that waves the “we value diversity” flag, can genuinely make this claim. By charging writers such high fees, these literary institutions seal themselves off from what they claim to seek: diversity of talent, diversity of experience, diversity of voice.
Literary Magazines for Socialists Funded by the CIA, Ranked

The story of the journals that helped the CIA in their fight against communism.

“[I]n much of Europe in the 1950’s,” wrote Braden, “socialists, people who called themselves ‘left’—the very people whom many Americans thought no better than Communists—were about the only people who gave a damn about fighting Communism.”
Why there are no taboos in Scandinavian children's books

The Guardian published this piece by Norwegian writer Norwegian Ingelin Røssland on the openness in writing for kids in Scandinavia.

In Scandinavia there are no taboos when it comes to writing, even for children and young people. Books for teens exploring sexuality with explicit language are not censored. It’s so normal for us. There is nothing I can’t cover as a teen writer and I know my publisher would stand by me no matter what.

Here are a couple of examples to explain what I mean. The book Fittekvote by Axel Hellstenius and Morten Skårdal, about young girls in the military, won a literature prize in 2011. It would be called “Cunt Quota” if translated into English.

One day left to read a chapter from Robert James Russell's Mesilla

Through Sunday, our sponsor Robert James Russell is allowing us run a chapter from his upcoming western Mesilla, being released by Seattle's own Dock Street Press. It's a real treat, and one you won't want to miss.

He unwound a piece of stained red cloth from around the upper part of his left thigh and he dropped the saturated tourniquet into a soaked pile beside him. He took two fingers and tore open his trousers and beneath the breach lay a bullet wound that fizzled deep, the skin encircling the wound lipped out as if it had been disturbed by some plated tremor deep below. He thumbed at it curiously as if he had familiarities with human anatomy then recoiled from the shocks of pain that shot back. He coughed and cleared his throat and squinted his eyes at the hole, imagining he could see the top of the stunted round glistening, and he wished he had dug the thing out in San Agustin when he’d had the chance.

Read the whole chapter. With your help, we can take Annie Oakley aim at internet advertising and make it something good.

Rahawa Haile’s short stories of the day, of the previous week, for August 29, 2015

Every day, friend of the SRoB Rahawa Haile tweets a short story. She gave us permission to collect them every week. This week includes a special appearnce by Rahawa's cat, FutureCat.

"Nearly every woman I know has either had an abortion or helped another woman get one," begins the latest post on local author Lesley Hazleton's blog. Hazleton is a brilliant writer, a fearless thinker, and a deeply compassionate human being, and in this post she puts all those qualities to the service of one important cause. Hazleton wants to "break the weird veil of shame and secrecy that still hangs over the decision" to have an abortion, "even when abortion is legal." She thinks it's important to "stand up and say 'Yes, sure, I had one.'" She continues: "So here’s the story of mine."

Go read the whole post. In the comments, Hazleton says she's organizing a January event at Town Hall "with thirty women speaking two minutes each, telling their own stories." As soon as she announces the date for that, we'll let you know.

The Seattle of your nightmares

Published August 28, 2015, at 12:00pm

Paul Constant review Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me.

If you raise your hackles when someone tells you that Seattle is a racist city, you need to read Ta-Nehisi Coates's new book. It won't make you feel any better, but it will absolutely open your eyes.

Read this review now

Shelf Awareness published an account of two Washington state booksellers who recently had to close due to rampant wildfires. One of the bookstores, Winthrop's delightful Trail's End, is open again and "plans to donate proceeds from coffee sales at its espresso bar to vetted fire relief funds." If you're ever in the Methow Valley, you should go out of your way to visit Trail's End; it's a delightful and well-stocked little shop. We're glad to hear they're all okay and back to serving the community.

The Help Desk: Advice on adopting the perfect muse

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I am a novelist. Some have called me the novelist, but their approval means nothing to me. Likewise their approbation. But I age, as we all do, and, as we all do, I crave the succor of youth. I have decided to adopt a child, that I may learn the ways of the youth from him and instill that vigor into my life’s work, my novels. Obviously, I should not acquire an American child because America has become a rogue nation, a palsied old nag that barely resembles its former mustang-self. From what nation should I adopt this child, that I may use him as a lens to acquire a global perspective on the uselessness of youth?

Jonathan, America

Dear Jonathan,

Why settle for an orphan from Asia or Afghanistan when you could harvest child parts from a healthy spread of broken countries and stuff them into the resentful muse of your choice for a truly tortured look at adolescence? Fifteen of the 20 poorest countries in the world are found in Africa and — happy coincidence! — you can’t be ignorant of America’s awkward relationship with its black citizens. Wouldn’t it be a triumph if you, a white man (educated guess), could write with earned authority on the plight of black men in America for a primarily white audience?

Begin by acquiring a sickly child from a country like Mozambique. It’s important that you don’t purchase the child outright, given our country’s historical use of the continent as a fire sale for cheap labor. Instead, try sensitively trading the child’s guardians a signed copy of your latest masterpiece in exchange for parental rights. If they seem to have emotions for the child, throw in a handful of cigarettes or a bottle of multivitamins.

From there, it’s a simple dance to purchase a few extra parts — a pancreas from Iraq, kidneys from China, a liver from somewhere truly exotic, like the corpse of a sober Bostonian.

There. Now you have crafted your perfect resentful muse. Add him to your family’s cell phone plan, create him a Twitter account and pose him by your writing desk. Ask him probing questions about his feelings for you, the world. The sound of his testicles dropping will provide the backdrop to your next best masterpiece.

xoxo,

Cienna

An interview with David Schmader, the brand-new creative director at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas

This morning, local author (and, full disclosure, my friend and former coworker) David Schmader made an exciting announcement: he’s the new creative director at the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas. The BFI is a nonprofit writing and communications center — until last year, it was known as 826 Seattle — that offers writing workshops, tutoring assistance, field trips, and other writerly pursuits for Seattle-area youth. Schmader has for decades been a beloved fixture in Seattle’s writing scene; you may know him from his brilliant solo shows, or his insanely fun Showgirls screenings, or his brainstorming classes at Hugo House, or his Last Days column in The Stranger. Perhaps, like me, you attended his world-premiere annotated screening of the Patrick Swayze film Road House last night at the Triple Door. If you’re a Seattleite, you should know that Schmader brings brilliance with him everywhere he goes — he’s the single best brainstormer I’ve ever worked with, and his comedy is so carefully crafted that you sometimes have to read his one-liners three or four times to figure out how a single sentence can be so deeply funny. He’ll do nothing but good for the fine people of the BFI. We managed to track him down for a brief interview about his new gig and what’s next.

How did this new job come about?

I first met BFI Executive Director Teri Hein through a mutual friend, and she knew my writing and was considering creating this new position of creative director for BFI. And when the time came that she was ready to make it happen, she approached me, and I said yes yes yes.

Could you explain what your new job as creative director will entail?

The "creative director" part is pretty literal. I'll be in charge of BFI's creative output and public voice—writing newsletters, directing "messaging," and generally wrangling words for the cause. But there's a big writer-in-residence component, too, that'll draw on the type of stuff I've done as a teacher at Hugo House and a mentor to TeenTix arts writers. And I get to bring my dog to work!

Say, weren't you working on a book? How's that going?

I am turning in the final-edit draft of my book this Monday. It is called Weed: The User's Guide, it's being published by Sasquatch, and will hit the shelves of bookstores and finer Urban Outfitters on 4/20/16.

Does the new gig at Bureau of Fearless Ideas mean you're going to be doing less writing and theater work?

Amazingly and wonderfully, no. This gig leaves me plenty of time to do my own writing, and after 15 years of cranking out words almost exclusively for The Stranger, I can't wait to explore new avenues for writing for print and the web. As for theater — I finally have time to dig through the box of ideas I've been filling for the past decade and a half, so I'll keep you posted on new stuff. Also: Next month I'm taking my solo play A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem down to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, and before I go, I'm doing a one-night performance here on September 19 at the Hugo House (aka the place that commissioned this show back in 2011). Tell people to come!

Fun, food, and fear: Farley Mowat and the lessons of Never Cry Wolf

Published August 27, 2015, at 12:01pm

Benjamin Corey review Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf.

In the 1940s, a young man named Farley Mowat traveled to northern Canada to study wolf attacks. What he discovered would inspire a classic story about the animals, fear, and expectations.

Read this review now

Thursday Comics Hangover: Let’s sell some action figures!

Every comics fan knows Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the new books that I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.

For many years, the publishers of superhero comics tried to convince their readers that it was the characters that mattered most, not the creative teams behind the characters. But that’s obviously not true; the writing and the art is what makes a real impact. This is why G. Willow Wilson’s Hugo-winning series Ms. Marvel, for example, has become a runaway bestseller for Marvel Comics — shape-changing characters and teenaged superheroes are plentiful in comics, but Kamala Khan is as unique and as iconic as Peter Parker. Without Wilson’s voice, the book would have already come and gone, yet another doomed attempt at brand maintenance, another new superhero tossed onto the pile of misfit intellectual properties.

But despite a handful of strong writing voices — Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, Nick Spencer’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man and Ant-Man, Cameron Stewart’s Batgirl, Ryan North’s Squirrel Girl — it’s a bad time for mainstream superhero comics. The major publishers have fallen back on what I’ve always thought of as the business of action figure manufacturing: the stories invariably get the heroes into as many new costumes as possible so they can sell the action figures to fans six months later. It all reeks of bad fan-fiction.

Consider Spider-Verse, a crossover that pitted hundreds of Spider-Men from parallel dimensions against some cross-dimensional force that wanted to kill every Spider-Man in the quantum universe. It’s hard to imagine anyone but the most ardent Spider-Man fans picking up this story, mired as it is in decades of noodling continuity; the Wikipedia page for Spider-Verse is as impenetrable as some tax codes. (I don’t mean here to pick on Spider-Man author Dan Slott, as his Silver Surfer comic with Mike Allred has been one of the most refreshing surprises of the last year, especially the recent issue that was formatted like a neverending Möbius strip that required the reader to turn the comic upside down and right-side up in a figure eight to follow the story.) And as much as I’ve enjoyed the world-building of Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s Secret Wars — it’s as close to a Game of Thrones that a superhero comic will ever achieve — even the most recent issue, #5, is starting to strain against the premise. How many multiple versions of heroes can we read about before they lose everything that made them special to begin with?

Something about superhero comics, if you let them run on long enough, eventually turns the story inward, and the struggle always becomes about the hero versus herself. Think of the Superman comics of the 1960s and 70s, in which Superman rarely battled an external threat. Usually, he’d struggle with some facet of his own personality — the imperfect duplicate Bizarro, a chunk of Red Kryptonite that would turn Superman evil, a Kryptonian who lacks Superman’s morals and so tries to take over the world — or deal with some sort of trickery from supporting cast members like Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen. Eventually, the books took on a weird psychoanalytic air as Superman would divide himself into two and try to solve all the world’s problems, say, or spend entire issues exploring alternate timelines in which Krypton never exploded or in which he married Lois Lane.

As much as I enjoy those Superman comics — along with some old Peanuts collections, these comics are how I learned to read, and I’ve always been fascinated by their jovial weirdness — they almost killed the medium. Around the time that Superman was reaching his most introverted, comics went from a mass medium to a pastime for hobbyists. (Don’t believe me? Check the sales figures yourself; Superman comics went from selling 810,000 copies a month in 1960 to 285,634 copies monthly in 1974.) These impenetrable superhero comics are really just about continuity; they’re stories about the stories that have come before, with so many winks and nods and outright curtsies to the reader that they stop being about anything but the comics themselves. I’d call it postmodernism if it demonstrated an ounce of self-awareness.

Recently, comics gossip site Bleeding Cool announced that DC Comics, coming off its own highly unpopular self-reflexive comics event, has told its editors to turn away from the “quirky, experimental, off the wall and less continuity-laden comic books” they had recently begun to encourage, instead telling them to fall back on the status quo. “Comic book audiences are a lot more conservative than some people give them credit for,” Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool concludes.

That may be so.

But people who don’t ordinarily read comics aren’t conservative at all, and they’re the ones who can expand the audience for superhero comics beyond the same dwindling crowd of 40-something men who have always read them. The non-superhero-buying-comics crowd are the people who turned Ms. Marvel into a surprise blockbuster, arguably the first superhero character to break into the mainstream consciousness since Wolverine and/or The Punisher debuted, back in 1974. To draw that kind of an audience, you need to put aside the intellectual property management and focus on the singular voice of a creator who knows what she wants to say, and believes in her own ability to say it. Superhero comics creators shouldn’t be in the business of trying to give comics fans what they want; they should be trying to convince everyone else to care about superhero comics.

Porchlit is a nifty ongoing site-specific project happening in the International District — specifically, the porch of a house at 500 12th Avenue S. "We upload recordings of literature - poetry, prose, monologue and so on - spoken every day on a porch for an entire year," project founders Yonnas Getahun, Campbell Thibo, and Omar Willey write on the About page. Here's amazing artist Seb Barnett reading a very appopriate poem by Jeremy Gaulke:

We'll have more to say about Porchlit soon, but for right now go check out the site and prepare yourself for September, which is Seattle Authors & Writers Month, a celebration of local writing on maybe the unlikeliest local venue of the all.