Annie Proulx, twenty-eight local authors, and you

Our sponsor, Friends' of the UW Libraries, gala event "Literary Voices", on May 3rd, is one of those amazing, inspiring events that are too far and too few between on our literary calendars. This year, they've got a keynote address by the inimitable Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News, Barkskins, and the short story "Brokeback Mountain".

The event is a fundraiser that pays directly for student employee scholarships. You are either helping to create the librarians of tomorrow, or get the librarians of today the support they need to run one of the most robust, impressive University library systems on the West Coast. Tickets are easy to get, both for individual tickets, and for buying a table to invite all your friends. Find out more, and see a list of the amazing authors you can dine with, on our sponsor's page.

Sponsors like UW Libraries make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? Get your stories, or novel, or event in front of our passionate audience. We have two dates for March we'd love to sell, and they're currently discounted. Take a glance at our sponsorship information page for dates and details.

Lunch Date: Healthy eating with a collection of stories about Muslim women

Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.

Who’s your date today? Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, by Randa Jarrar.

Where’d you go? The Chaco Canyon Organic Café in West Seattle.

What’d you eat? I had the smoky yam and kale quinoa bowl($9.95) and a cup of coffee.

How was the food? Seattle is an emotional disaster zone right now, with the dozens of days of gray skies and the below-average temperatures and the occasional bursts of sun that make people act even weirder than usual. No matter how sunny it gets, we know that there's another gray wall around the next bend. So it felt really good to eat something that is wholly healthy and incredibly delicious. You know sometimes you'll eat a bowl of something good and it feels like pure nutrients, like you can envision the vitamins and minerals floating through your body like an elementary-school film strip on nutritious eating? This was that. It actively made me feel stronger, both emotionally and physically. If you're feelng terrible right now, you should try this meal. The garlic tahini added a rounded flavor that the kale and yam couldn't supply on their own, and I also doused the whole thing in hot sauce. It's the meal you need right now.

What does your date say about itself? It's a story collection by an author who is previously best known for her novels. Here's a blurb from author Peter Ho Davies:

These vibrant, funny, earthy, and above all, yearning stories are a revelation.... Like a female, Arab American Junot Díaz!

Is there a representative quote? Here's the first paragraph of the first story, "The Lunatics' Eclipse:"

The neighborhood got its first dose of Qamar the summer of her ninth birthday, when she sat on the rooftop of her Alexandria apartment building for ten days and waited for the moon to come down. She did it for her neighbor Metwalli; he promised he'd be hers forever if she only brought him the moon. Metwalli was twenty-four and had no idea that Qamar would take his pledge to heart.

Will you two end up in bed together? Yes, although I must admit that this first story didn't wow me as much as I wanted it to. Jarrar is an excellent stylist and her prose is first-rate. But this first story feels very typical of an early-2000s short story aesthetic: bring several strands of magical realism together, introduce some bizarre coincidences, and then end the story at exactly the moment before it's revealed whether the fantastic elements are real or just fanciful. I loved the places this story went, but I hated how familiar the structure and tone felt. I'm eager to read more and see if Jarrar has some other tricks in store for her readers.

Jamaica Baldwin's extraordinary journey into poetry

One day, Jamaica Baldwin’s name just started popping up everywhere in Seattle literary circles. Two years ago, I had never seen her name before. Then from out of the blue in January of 2016 came this tweet from Kwame Dawes:

And then Baldwin was everywhere at once. She was part of the exclusive Margin Shift poetry collective’s reading series and the 2016 Lit Crawl and seemingly everywhere else in the Seattle literary scene. Adding to the drama of her out-of-nowhere debut was the mystery surrounding her name; as a poet, Baldwin was un-Google-able. You couldn’t find her poetry anywhere online.

That’s finally changed. Last month, Rattle published Baldwin’s stunning poem “Call Me By My Name” in both print and audio. And now she’s our March Poet in Residence, with a new poem published on the site every Tuesday. We’ve published two of her poems thus far, “Father/Less” and “Vigilant.” Together, the two poems reflect much of Baldwin’s interest: she writes passionately about race and politics, with an engaged voice and a tendency toward formalist structure.

Those lucky few who’ve seen her read might be surprised to learn that Baldwin, 40, describes herself as “a relatively new writer.” She started writing in 2009, and began taking writing seriously after she moved to moved New York City in 2011 and took a workshop at the Center for Fiction. She mostly wrote plays and fiction. But then “I got diagnosed with breast cancer,” she says, “and then, you know, something turned. I found myself reading a lot of poetry, and then I started writing poetry, and that was just kind of it.”

Baldwin has lived in Seattle off and on since she was “about 19.” At the time of her diagnosis, she was living in New York City, but she moved back west to be close to her family as she finished treatment. Sitting in a Fremont coffee shop on a gray March day, she seems healthy and strong, prone to infectious gales of laughter.

Though Baldwin has only been writing poetry for a few years, she’s been exposed to poetry her whole life. She wasn't a big reader of poetry as a child, but "my mom was a writer and so there was always a lot of poetry around the house,” she explains. “I would pick up a book here and there — some Nikki Giovanni laying around the house, or Mary Oliver. That kind of thing.”

“After cancer, I just thought about things in a different way,” Baldwin says. “And I think poetry helped me. The writing of poetry, the form of poetry attracted me and spoke to me.” Her reading became more varied and purposeful, focusing on poets of the African diaspora. Baldwin went to school with Laurie Ann Guerrero, last year’s poet laureate of Texas, and so she had a personal introduction to contemporary poetry. She found new meaning in the work of Ross Gay and Terrance Hayes. Locally, she praises the work of Maged Zaher and Quenton Baker, and she’s eager to learn from Elizabeth Austen’s “pitch perfect” presentation style as a 2017 Jack Straw Writer.

“I knew I was behind,” Baldwin says of her poetry education. “There was just so much out there to learn.” The thing about poetry, though, is that if you want to learn more, poets will show you the way. “I would read interviews by the poets that I was discovering, and then they would mention books or poets that they love. And then I would go and find those poets, so it was sort of this domino effect of just trying to read as much as I could.”

Having recently graduated from Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing Program with a focus on poetry, Baldwin worried that “without the deadlines, I would hit a dry spell and not be able to write. But it was almost the opposite.” She finds “there are plenty of things to write about every day. I mean, I get triggered by things that I read, or things that are going on in the world. And then I also get triggered by just reading other peoples’ poetry.” She describes stopping in the middle of reading a poem and writing a response to it right then and there. Poetry, for Baldwin, is a conversation — and that conversation is just getting started.

The Sunday Post for March 19, 2017

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.

The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age

This one’s close to home. Arts culture and reviews are on the decline as news publications go digital-first — criticism just doesn’t drive the clicks and pageviews that are the darlings of the modern editorial office. Some publications are finding creative workarounds, like this Dallas bookstore and this book review site. But if we think the critic’s voice matters, we need to get smart about using data with intuition and experience, not instead of.

The drive to revamp cultural coverage has overtaken major newspapers, including the New York Times, just as the wider public has been rediscovering the virtue of traditional reporting. In the wake of the 2016 Presidential campaign, with its catastrophic feedback loop of fake news and clickbait, people have subscribed in surging numbers to so-called legacy publications. Do these chastened content-consumers really want culture pages dominated by trending topics? Or do they expect papers to decide for themselves what merits attention? One lesson to be learned from the rise of Donald Trump is that the media should not bind themselves blindly to whatever moves the needle.
The Roots of Cowboy Music: The Search for a Black Self in the American West

Carvell Wallace covered the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, walking alone through a sea of ten-gallon hats, exploring the complex cultural roots of cowboy music, and asking what it means to put America first. He’s nailed the tone in this one: straightforward, generous, even a bit sentimental — but not letting anyone off the hook.

To hear Steiger talk about it, ranching — "cowboying," as he called it — is the most natural and beautiful thing in the world. Simple and spiritual. Honest and pure. This view explains why so many people make their pilgrimage to Elko every year, carrying guitars and banjos, fiddles and musical saws, dressed in white hats and turquoise, boots and fringe. They are in love with a lovely thing. It gives them a sense of place, a sense of belonging. It is a celebration of culture. It is, in many ways, a family reunion.

And for me, as always, I just see ghosts.

From Escapism to Activism, the Indie Mag Scene is Woke

Print is a conversation; digital is a crowd. Now that we’re past the delirious early days of our fling with social media, it’s easier to see what the printed page is uniquely good for.

The love affair between print, politics, and protest is no new romance. Shuffle down the mag pile marked “protest” and you’ll find the underground press of the 60s and 70s, and feminist titles like Spare Rib. Reach further back and you’ll find the clandestine press of the French Resistance, British political pamphlets of the 18th century, and much more. But now that digital and social media provide so many other means for political protest and debate, why does print remain an essential part of the political media diet?
Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?

Why? For a multitude of reasons — unconscious bias, a clubby educational system, assumptions about where genius comes from — that boil down to “because they can be, and they make a lot of money while they’re doing it.” Thanks to Susan J. Fowler and other women who are speaking up, that’s changing. Liza Mundy interviewed dozens of women who’ve survived and succeeded in the tech industry for this story.

“Until we see changes in the way we work, I don’t think we’re going to crack this nut,” Correll says. “I worked with one company that insisted that the best way for good ideas to emerge was to have people on teams screaming their ideas at each other. When you watch these teams work, they literally scream at each other and call each other names. They believe this dynamic is essential to scientific discovery—absolutely essential. I said, ‘Could you at least say you disagree with someone without saying you think they are an idiot?’ ”
Persisting in Dark Times: Lessons From a War Crimes Researcher

Muira McCammon spends hours daily reading about, looking at, and listening to the documented record of humanity at its worst. She turned her researcher’s eye on the survival strategies of her profession.

I kept asking Seccombe how he handled the psychological taxation of performing document analysis on so many pages of trial evidence about Nazi experiments in human freezing, oxygen deprivation (high-altitude), poison gas, and chemical sterilization. How did he endure the onslaught of details about the removal of bones for anatomical research, Jewish skeleton collections, forced sterilization programs, and the mass murder of civilians? I needed to know what he did to relax at the end of the day. “I try to leave the work behind,” he said, “but sometimes I still get nightmares.”

Nearly a year later, I still write to Seccombe almost weekly. When we really need a break, we tend to discuss our latest “canine-friendly moments.” Neither of us owns dogs. We just like to talk about them.

Seattle Writing Prompts: The Seattle Center Monorail

Seattle Writing Prompts are intended to spark ideas for your writing, based on locations and stories of Seattle. Write something inspired by a prompt? Send it to us! We're looking to publish writing sparked by prompts.

Also, how are we doing? Are writing prompts useful to you? Could we be doing better? Reach out if you have ideas or feedback. We'd love to hear.

In the many years I've lived in Seattle, I've heard a myriod of complaints about the Monorail. It's a toy, people say. Too short. Goes from nowhere to nowhere. Is too old. Is too slow. Isn't the future we were promised.

Built for the Seattle World's Fair in 1962, the one-mile track starts near the Armory, curves through MoPop (sometimes rebrands are eye-rolling, but this one makes so much sense) before heading up 5th Avenue.

The ride is short, only two minutes or so, with a top speed of 45 miles per hour. There are two tracks, and two trains, but unless a major event is happening at the Center only one operates at a time. But you knew all this already, right? There is not much mystery about this tiny transit system, this boutique teacup of a train. It's like a proof-of-concept that never got the green light to go beyond its diminutive domain.

The Monorail has enjoyed fifty-plus years of being a Seattle icon, an avatar on the flag we like to wave. Elvis rode it, after all. It's part of our self-image, or consciousness, and our extended identity.

It's a safe ride — mostly. There was a two-train collision at a choke point at Westlake station once, and after the price to fix a door was quoted at outrageous numbers, the Seattle Opera Scene Shop (which is sadly being closed, displacing some of the greatest artists and craftspeople in our region) came in and manufactured new doors for a fraction of the price. A fire in a electrical system led to a Seattle Fire Department evacuation of a train via ladder. It is a safe ride (nobody has died riding it, to my knowledge), but something about it feels a bit unsafe, as if the car might just list off the rails and slump to the ground. Maybe that's why expansion never happened.

Not that people didn't try. They say the original line was supposed to be be an extended region-wide system, to the airport and beyond. but it wasn't until 1997 that a grassroots effort to expand the Monorail made it to the ballot. Over the years, four votes to fund the initiative and spin up a new transit authority were passed, until a fifth vote dismantled the whole system in 2005. The plan was scuttled by bad management, internal politics, external politics, bad public perception, and the utter disbelief from City Hall that the people could actually mandate the kind of regional transport system they want without being told what they want.

That this plan didn't work ultimately is less painful with the furthering expansion of Sound Transit's wonderful subway system. But it's still fun to think that if the Green Line had been built on time — and, that's a pretty big 'if' to swallow, given the way their agency was run — it would have been twenty-six years old when the Sound Transit line to Ballard opens in 2035.

Maybe the whole thing was a pipe dream to begin, but wasn't that the promise of the original monorail? A little dreamy future in the middle of this town with an identity crises about being taken seriously. But then again, maybe we should have stopped with our plans when they were pre-parodied by a Simpon's episode. It might have saved us some heartache.

But for those of us that love the Monorail — I ride at least once a month or so — there will always be a bit of dream that I could ride all day, along the elevated tracks, through the city, watching the sun sink below the Olympics as I'm taking the train home.

Today's prompts
  1. Action movie — The call came at 10:39 am, echoing over the loudspeaker at the fire station. A truck carrying explosive charges for the Space Needle New Years' celebration just crashed into one of the Monorail support posts causing a huge explosion. The support collapsed just before the train approached, and now a car full of tourists was dangling over Fifth Avenue....

  2. Meet-cute — It was love at first site, at the World's Fair, and it was a two-way street. Time stopped when they saw each other. Holding their breaths, neither could look away. But one was on the Monorail train about to exit, and the other was on the platform about to board. They saw each other through the glass, the shuffling crowd of the World's Fair pushing and commanding them onward. But there was no way to let an opportunity like this past. Drastic action must be taken.

  3. Musical — The players: the young woman who just lost her husband to cancer. The homeless man, a skilled musician, whose personal battles overrode his talent. The precocious twins with perfect pitch and a tap-dance routine. The off-duty cop with a heart of gold on her way to see her sweetheart. The dandy with the pocket square and waxed moustache. The drummer from the streets who plays buckets for change. The setting: a one minute monorail ride, and when the doors open, the rest of the world.

  4. Horror film — The drivers all talked about it. That feeling when you crossed Denny, that feeling of a hand suddenly grasping your ankle. Of pulling you, like it wanted you under the train, on the track, in the wheels. And that one driver who swore, after feeling that creepy sensation (five drivers had quit because of it), that she saw a young girl in a pretty dress standing on the tracks. Just standing in the middle of the concrete platform as the train approached. It was too late to break. The driver screamed, but there was no girl on the tracks. "It was her," some said: a girl who was killed in a traffic accident at Denny and 5th, caused when her father looked up out of his window to see the train pass overhead. The girl whose spirit now cursed the line forever.

  5. Noir film — Ripe pickings at Bumbershoot. All those tourists with their backpacks. Easy to move among the crowd on the Monorail run and pick a few pockets. Grab a few wallets, a few phones, a few watches. Slip off into the crowd before anyone notices. Standing on the platform at Westlake, getting ready to move through the crowd, a tug comes at the thief's sleeve. A kid. "I saw you," the kid said. "I saw you and I'm gonna tell on you," the kid looked around conspiratorially. "Unless you teach me how to do it too."

A sad day for Northwest poetry: Joan Swift has died

We're very sad to share the news that Edmonds poet Joan Swift passed away on March 13th. She was 90 years old. We'll share details of the memorial as soon as we hear them.

If you're unfamiliar with Swift, I would encourage you to read this interview between Tania Pryputniewicz and Swift, which frankly covers topics including Swift's history of sexual abuse, and how her strength informs her work. She also offers her advice to young women who write, and discusses her time as a student of Northwestern poetry cornerstone Theodore Roethke.

Kathleen Flenniken ran a good poem of Swift's titled "Listening to My Bones" a few years ago. It starts with a doctor's visit, in which Swift feels the same kind of nervousness that we all feel when we're sitting in the office. And it ends with Swift's musings on corporeality versus consciousness (or, if you'd prefer, spirituality.) This passage is just phenomenal:

he is listening to the sound of bones

the way NASA turns its telescopes far over our heads on Mauna Kea

and hears the universe move.

Swift is a poet who moved the universe.

We'll have more to say soon. For now, we send our condolences to her friends and families.

Mary Gaitskill and the invisible force between words

Mary Gaitskill discussing her career as a bookseller. This is the first @hugohouse reading at Washington Hall, which is a great reading venue!

A post shared by The Seatttle Review of Books (@seattlereviewof) on

Last night, Mary Gaitskill delivered a craft talk at a Hugo House event hosted at Washington Hall. Gaitskill was mostly interested in the intangible elements of writing: that mysterious intangible known as "style" which creeeps in around the words and imbues the text with a meaning that is greater than the sum of its parts. Gaitskill's talk ranged from Donald Trump• to ant decapitations to The Wire creator David Simon's claims that TV shows are a more relevant storytelling tool than the novel, because novels are about individuals while TV shows are about social systems.

Gaitskill demonstrated the importance of style by reading pieces of Pale Fire and Bleak House and Flannery O'Connor's story "Good Country People." The small character sketches she read demonstrated how a tiny passage of a novel, or a paragraph from a story, can contain all the larger themes of the work. My favorite part of the talk came when Gaitskill described Bleak House's Lady Dedlock: "She's proud and she's cold," Gaitskill said, "and she's proud and she's cold, over and over and over again. She's like a playing card, almost." That blending of one of Dickens's most unforgettable characters with a visual from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland demonstrates Gaitskill's most impressive talent: her ability to find the invisible threads that connect elements of our world, and to make them visible, revealing what always been right in our line of sight.

Go see Paterson at the Grand Illusion this week

This post was originally published in January, but we're re-running it because Paterson is making a return engagement for one week only at the University District's wonderful Grand Illusion Cinema, starting tonight. Visit the Grand Illusion's site for screening times, and a little public service announcement: the Grand Illusion is cash-only, so hit up an ATM on the way. Also, in a total coincidence, today is Transit Driver Appreciation Day, so don't forget to thank a bus driver. Our favorite bus driver locally is Nathan Vass, who blogs about his experiences.

A lot of great movies adapted from written works have been released over the last month or so. Silence is a complex and challenging and ultimately rewarding adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel about the demands and responsibilities of faith. Fences is one of the most harrowing family dramas I’ve seen in years, with career-best performances from Denzel Washington and, especially, Viola Davis.

But one original movie in theaters right now, not adapted from a book or play, is a surprising tribute to the importance of the written word. I’m talking about Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson, and I’m telling you: if you love books and poetry and writing, you have to see this movie as soon as possible.

Paterson’s premise sounds like the setup for a limerick: Adam Driver stars as Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. The film follows a week in his life, and not a whole lot, really, happens. Paterson is a man who likes his rituals: he walks the dog to the bar every night, and he writes a few lines of poetry into his notebook in the morning, and he likes to sit in the same spot and watch the water go over Paterson Falls. He and his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) live a quiet life that is mostly content. They could use a little more money, sure, but who couldn’t?

Paterson is a film of echoes. Certain themes repeat themselves over and over: fire, twins, rain. Paterson admires the poetry of William Carlos Williams, the city of Paterson’s most famous literary resident, and Williams’ work reverberates through the film as well. (Williams wrote an epic poem about the city also titled Paterson.) These little instances accrue into a fuller portrait, a pointillist masterpiece.

Paterson doesn’t write his poetry for the sake of immortality. He writes poetry because it’s how he processes the world. Driver reads the lines over and over in a halting voice as Paterson writes in his notebook and the handwritten words appear on screen. We see him sitting in his small office, lined with books by Williams and David Foster Wallace and Frank O’Hara, as he struggles to get the words just so. He seems to meet poets around every street corner: everyone is recording the universe in careful handwriting on lined paper in secret notebooks.

Paterson made me happier than any movie I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s a movie about art for the sake of art, a movie about writing and reading for no reason but for the pleasure of writing and reading. Paterson’s life inspires his art, which in turn inspires his life. There’s probably no big break around the corner for him. He’s probably not going to get a big thick hardcover anthology of his work. But he does it anyway, because he has to, and because it makes him better.

Trust me: you don’t want to half-watch Paterson on your couch while idly flicking through your phone. This is a movie to watch in the theater. Afterward, take public transit home. Bring a book of poetry to read on the bus or the train. Eavesdrop on some conversations. There’s art everywhere — you just have to be ready to receive it.

The Help Desk: Secret romances and sexy pirates

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,

In your opinion, what movie adaptation is better than the book it’s based on and why?

Caroline, Matthews Beach

Dear Caroline,

I'm currently loving Black Sails, which is not a movie but a pirate-themed series based on historical figures and characters from the children's book Treasure Island. It inspired me to re-read Treasure Island, however, I abandoned it after a few chapters because there was not enough fucking.

Kisses,

Cienna

P.S. I just asked a woman on the bus your question and she said "50 Shades of Grey." Just in case you wanted two terrible opinions.

Bonus Question!

Dear Cienna,

I read romance novels on my Kindle on the bus. Nobody needs to know what I'm into, right? But then, every now and again on my commute I’ll run into a coworker who wants to make small talk about what I’m reading. I'm terrible at lying. Can you give me some good snappy comebacks?

Dahlia, Lower Queen Anne

Dear Dahlia,

Tell your coworkers that you are reading "erotic C-SPAN fanfic," "Bible limericks" or "fresh pet obituaries." Those are three collections of words that no one wants to hear slide out of a coworker's mouth. But if you're not as comfortable making people uncomfortable as I am, you can also say, "I don't know. I'm not really reading it, this Kindle is just a prop to discourage bus folk from making small talk with me." And then smile real nice.

Kisses,

Cienna

Portrait Gallery: Mohsin Hamid

Each week, Christine Marie Larsen creates a new portrait of an author for us. Have any favorites you’d love to see immortalized? Let us know

Saturday March 18th: Exit West Reading

Mohsin Hamid writes novels about the world as it is now. His books are structurally adventurous and tuned to provocative issues like immigration, racism, and the War on Terror. His latest novel is about a young couple finding love in a world overrun with homeless refugees and fearful xenophobes.
Piggott Auditorium, 901 12th Ave., 624-6600, http://www.elliottbaybookcompany.com All ages. 2 p.m.

Authors protest Trump's proposed arts budget cuts

PEN America notes that a number of organizations and authors are protesting Donald Trump's proposed budget, which cuts funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

America’s most prominent writers and artists across a wide array of genres–including painter Jasper Johns, actor John Lithgow, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, cartoonist Art Spiegelman, and novelists Hanya Yanagihara, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, and Anne Tyler–are leading a petition to protect federal funding for the arts that supports literature, scholarly research, visual arts, dance, theater, museums, and arts education programs around the country to ensure that all Americans can access cultural works and activities.

You can sign that petition here.

PEN America, of course, is a wonderful organization. Last month I talked with Paul Auster about why PEN is so important, and what an artist's responsibility should be in the age of Trump.

The Future Alternative Past: can untaught writing be taut?

Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. Read past columns here

Can and can’t

Many people say you can’t teach anyone to write. Just Google the phrase “Can’t teach how to write.” Half your hits will be refutations of the idea — which means half those discussing it think it needs refuting. Creative writing programs proliferate across the country, around the world, and all through the virtual ether — and yet they’re slammed by pros as too academic, too expensive, for dilettantes, for cowards, a scam to employ lazy and/or inept has-beens as teachers and enrich institutions catering to the dimwit dreams of talentless wannabes. The thing to do if you want to write, detractors of formalized writing instruction opine, is to actually write. You can learn to write, they say, but only from yourself.

What can be learned can be taught, counter the refuters. Writing is not an innate talent. It’s a skill. It can be imparted.

From my perch in Genreland I see both sides. As genius author and critic Samuel R. Delany wrote in Starboard Wine, in an essay titled “Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction,” the ability to read SF is an acquired one. Seeing words such as “The red sun is high, the blue low” on a page calls for work on the reader’s part. Why is the first sun red? Atmospheric interference? Age? Plus there are two suns — so neither is Earth’s sun — which is yellow, right? And on and on...readers familiar with the possibilities produced by just one SF sentence take them into account easily, and are easily able to handle the similar wealth of possibilities inherent in some fantasy and horror texts. Mundanes (the SFFH community’s term for outsiders) almost always have a harder time. They’re unused to the protocols that help us discriminate between literal and figurative versions of statements such as “Her head exploded.” And without understanding those protocols, SFFH is as difficult to write SFFH as it is to read.

One remedy for being outside the SFFH community is to enter it. Being surrounded by others who see what Howard Waldrop is saying does great things to one’s gestalt. Reading, participating in discussions, attending conventions and film festivals, and taking workshops are all good ways of getting inside. At Clarion West, Clarion, Milford, Viable Paradise, and other SFFH writing workshops, students learn from each other as well as from the official instructors.

There are also books to assist us: Cory Doctorow’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, and Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction, to name a few. The last example was based on the class of the same name I taught with my co-author, Cynthia Ward, which shows you that I not only think it’s possible to teach writing SFFH, I have even actually attempted it.

But I restrict myself in these attempts. I focus on particular elements of writing SFFH: dialogue and dialect, narration and inclusivity, characterization and representation. Most of the time these daysI teach online in partnership with K. Tempest Bradford, and we expand on specific topics covered in the Writing the Other book.

Is teaching writing possible? Do I succeed? Authors tell me they’ve written entire books because they took my course or read my book. But there are bound to be failures. Some people are just no good at writing, and no good at writing SFFH in particular, whether or not they’re well taught.

Ways in

The big regional convention hereabouts is Norwescon, coming up April 13 - 16. In addition to the usual panels discussing topics such as Utopias, spacetravel, and the future of brain-sharing, there are filmmaking contests and masquerades. And lots of workshops — including miniature versions of the weeks-long ones mentioned above. The Philip K. Dick Award is presented at Norwescon, too, at a banquet studded with witty speeches.

Eastercon, aka Innominate, occurs the same weekend as Norwescon, but several time zones away, in England. There, too, a banquet will be held to showcase the presentation of awards: in this case, the coveted British Science Fiction Association’s picks for best novel, short fiction, nonfiction, and art. A longstanding tradition (the first Innominate happened the year I was born, 1955) it hosts the other events con-goers expect as well: gaming, dancing (at a “Pyjama Disco” this year), panels,etc. All this, and Marmite too!

Recent books recently read

Definitely falling into the pulpish “with a mighty bound” school of SFFH, Cynthia Ward’s The Adventure of the Incognita Countess (Aqueduct Press) mashes up elements of Tarzan, Dracula, H.G. Wells’ Martians, and the Sherlock Holmes mythos in a spy caper set aboard the HMS Titanic. Amid thesteampunkish thrill of weaponized gloves and a stolen set of blueprints for Jules Verne’s proto-submarine Nautilus, Ward’s heroine experiences the throes of vampiric lesbian love and finds herself questioning her terribly problematic views on souls. Though short, this book throngs with action and its characters’ piercing emotional reactions to its tight plot.

John Scalzi’s latest space opera The Collapsing Empire (Tor) shares the breezy, conversational tone of his popular blog, Whatever. Popes, cutthroat merchants, and dying emperoxes (in Scalzi’s non-gender specific nomenclature) complain about the weight of their coronation robes, the idiocy of officials, and the obstinacy of assassins. The novel’s premise is that after centuries of human use a faster-than-light path between star systems is fading out of existence. Within a decade.Switching viewpoints between a reluctant heir to the pan-stellar throne, a nerdish provincial mathematician, and a lusty smuggler of refugees, the author’s entertaining account of this so-called Interdependency’s unraveling inevitably ends in a cliffhanger. There will be a sequel. Maybe more than one — as noted on Whatever, Tor andScalzi just signed a 10-year contract. However manybooks he writes in this series, if they’re as easy on the eyes as this one, they’ll be welcome.

Smells Like Finn Spirit, (Tor) local author Randy Henderson’s third and final fantasy in the Familia Arcana trilogy, is as 80s-referential as the first two. Maybe more so. Though his rock star girlfriend is doing her best to catch him up on cultural developments that took place during his twenty-plus-year exile in fairyland, hero Finn Gramarye’s humorous take on the continuing war between fairies, wizards, and magical beings such as sasquatches and weresquirrels depends heavily on knowledge of that decade. Fortunately he gets cooperation in his preferences from those surrounding him: a sorcerer battles him in an illusory maze in the guise of Donkey Kong. His girlfriend disarms murderous fairies by singing pop songs with pointed lyrics.And so forth. If you’re unfamiliar with that time period, you’re best off reading volumes one and two of the series (Finn Fancy Necromancy and Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free) before starting this third one. Become grounded. That’s the best way to enjoy the buzz of being swept off your feet by Henderson’s guileless giddiness.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Over the top

Every so often I'll read a corporate superhero comic that reminds me why I fell in love with the genre as a child. This week's U.S.Avengers #4 is that kind of a book.

Writer Al Ewing has been pubilshing fun superhero comics for Marvel for a while — his Ultimates has basically grown into a hall-of-fame of the weirdest ideas Marvel writers have ever produced — but his U.S.Avengers series is the best thing he's done yet. Starring the most half-baked collection of superheroes you can imagine — Squirrel Girl, an off-brand Hulk, a pacifist Iron Man — and illustrated with great sincerity by Paco Medina, the book feels like a parody that spins out of control, only to circle all the way back around to become a straightforward adventure comic again.

Every issue of U.S.Avengers has been a standalone story that, in any other series, would be blown out to six stultifying issues. But the most recent issue takes that concept literally: It's an entire four-issue corporate superhero comic crossover crammed into a single, normal-sized issue. And I mean that literally: every few pages, Medina draws another cover to a nonexistent series ("Monsters 'n Shield" is one) followed by another splash page with credits. The comic is made up of four tiny comics.

Medina's art is fantastic for this sort of thing. He perfectly captures the man-in-tights aesthetic, but his work is just cartoony enough to lend a slight satirical bent.

The story involves two characters I loathe — Deadpool and Red Hulk, who is like the regular Hulk only red, and an asshole — trying to fight a monster-making mad scientist. Ewing gets credit for writing the only Deadpool line that has ever made me laugh out loud (and yes, I'm including the wildly overrated Ryan Reynolds movie in this estimation.) It's a ridiculous book starring ridiculous characters who know how ridiculous they are, which is all most of us ask from our superhero comics.

In a time when most monthly corporate comics are overridden with crossovers and bloated stories designed to pad out trade paperbacks, U.S.Avengers #4 openly mocks both those conventions. Maybe mainstream comics have lowered my expectations too much, but right now that's enough to win my heart.

Book News Roundup: Saying goodbye to Lem's Life Enrichment Bookstore owner Vickie Williams

  • At the South Seattle Emerald, Marcus Harrison Green says goodbye to Vickie Williams, the owner of a long-running Columbia City Bookstore:
The longtime owner of Seattle’s only black-owned bookstore, Lem’s Life Enrichment Bookstore, in the Columbia City neighborhood, was laid to rest in a funeral attended by more than 600 people, including local officials and community luminaries, and a large swath of the black community.
If you’re an independent comics creator in the Seattle region, Anne Bean wants to stock you. Bean—a comics writer, indie publisher and freelance writer—is launching Emerald Comics Distribution, a solo operation that will represent and distribute indie comics regionally.
When we opened our new downtown library with its large auditorium, back in 2004, I stood looking up at the empty seats and immediately felt that I needed to do a story time for adults there. Ours is one of the most childless cities in the country. Every library has children’s story time. Don’t adults deserve the same? Our need for story doesn’t go away at a certain age. Not surprisingly, turnout has been good for over a decade, and spinoff programs such as ghost storytelling in bars are standing room only. Last year, I added another narrative element by pairing story readings with screenings of film adaptations in a program I called Page to Screen.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from Wednesday March 15th - March 21st

Wednesday March 15th: WordsWest: Resistance and Immigration

The West Seattle reading series celebrates the Ides of March with a very timely theme. Seattle short story author Donna Miscolta (author of When the de La Cruz Family Danced) and West Seattle poet Shankar Narayan will read new work and talk about life in an America that seems to have rolled up the welcome mat. C&P Coffee Co., 5612 California Ave. SW, http://wordswestliterary.weebly.com. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Thursday March 16th: Beyond $15 Book Launch Party

Jonathan Rosenblum debuts his new book Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement, an account of the fight for a $15 minimum wage in SeaTac. Rosenblum will be joined by Councilmember Kshama Sawant and other leaders of the movement to reflect and discuss the future. Washington State Labor Council, 321 16th Ave S., 281-8901, http://www.wslc.org/ . Free. All ages. 6 p.m.

Friday March 17th: Ugly Time Book Launch Party

See our event of the week column for more details. Canvas Events Space, 3412 4th Ave. S., , http://gramma.press. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Saturday March 18th: Exit West Reading

Mohsin Hamid writes novels about the world as it is now. His books are structurally adventurous and tuned to provocative issues like immigration, racism, and the War on Terror. His latest novel is about a young couple finding love in a world overrun with homeless refugees and fearful xenophobes. Piggott Auditorium, 901 12th Ave., 624-6600, http://www.elliottbaybookcompany.com All ages. 2 p.m.

Sunday March 19th: The Rules Do Not Apply Reading

New Yorker author Ariel Levy’s new memoir is about losing everything—a child, a husband, a successful career—and finding out what happens next. This book has received praise from all corners for its stark portrayal of grief and survival. She’ll be in conversation with Seattle memoirist Claire Dederer. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com . Free. All ages. 6 p.m.

Monday March 20th: Free Women, Free Men Reading

In the 1990s, Camille Paglia was kind of a big deal: she was a controversial feminist who seemingly never turned down an opportunity to speak publicly. She fell out of favor after the turn of the millennium, but as the ancient Chinese proverb goes, if you live long enough, you get to see yourself critically reappraised. Seattle Public Library, 1000 4th Ave., 386-4636, http://spl.org. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Tuesday March 21st: Lovecraft Country and Everfair Reading

The Seattle-based authors of two of last year’s best novels—not just sci-fi novels, mind you, but novels in general—share a stage at Elliott Bay tonight. Matt Ruff celebrates the recent paperback release of his novel-in-stories, Lovecraft Country. Nisi Shawl’s steampunk alternate history Everfair is still in hardcover, but it is worth every penny. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com . Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Literary Event of the Week: Sarah Galvin at the Gramma Poetry party

You can choose from any number of reasons to attend the Gramma Poetry launch party at Canvas (the space formerly known as Western Bridge) this Friday night. It’s the launch party for an exciting new Seattle publisher called Gramma Poetry. There’s food. There’s booze. People are spreading rumors that there may be a bouncy castle. The band Boyfriends will play a set, followed by a dance party. Gramma author Christine Shan Shan Hou will be signing copies of her new book Community Garden for Lonely Girls. You might meet the love of your life there.

But you can find food, booze, dance parties, bouncy castles, and the love of your life virtually anywhere on a Friday night. The real reason to show up for the Gramma party is the debut of Seattle poet Sarah Galvin’s second collection and third book, Ugly Time. Galvin is one of the most entertaining readers in Seattle—hell, if she didn’t share an area code with Sherman Alexie, she’d almost definitely be the most entertaining poet in a 300-mile radius. Her readings can reduce a room full of overly serious literary types to a helpless pile of giggles.

But Galvin’s not just some stand-up comic in poet’s clothing. Her poems are crazy funny, but they’re also brilliantly crafted, with spring-loaded sentences that snap shut on your attention when your guard is at its lowest. As much as Galvin’s papercut-sharp delivery may convince you otherwise, these poems aren’t non sequiturs, or exercises in absurdity. They’re a record kept by a keen mind, a diary as real and as honest as the one you kept for a couple weeks when you were 13, only about two billion times better-written.

Take this stanza, from “I Heard She Was Fired from Catholic Arby’s;”

I climbed every historic building in town

and nothing was on top of them.

Now most of them have been demolished

to make way for buildings that lack

even the possibility of something on top of them.

The sensation of Seattle in 2017, with old disappointments being torn down to make room for newer, more antiseptic disappointments, has rarely been captured so honestly.

The poems in Ugly Time are observational and confessional and so amiable that you often don’t realize how brutal they are until you’re a few pages past. The concept of “childhood traumas” as something “like a civil war re-enactment,” playing out again and again with “my obsessive recollection of how each person fell,” is such a clear and perfect image that for a second it almost seems too obvious. (And the fact that Galvin covers it all up with a good joke about hats only adds to the power.)

Galvin’s poetry is like that: pratfalls on the edge of an abyss. “Not many people accidentally call a phone sex line/when they’re trying to reach a suicide prevention hotline,/but when you meet one it’s like meeting the president.” There’s comedy and tragedy in those lines, and that extra distance between the phone calls and the reader—the awestruck meeting of the person—gives the piece another layer of meaning. You can’t cry because you’re too busy laughing.

Finally, a way to support independent bookstores while listening to audiobooks!

In my review of the audio version of Seveneves yesterday, I wrote about Libro.fm, an audiobook provider that partners with independent bookstores. Every time you purchase an audiobook through Libro.fm, you support the indie bookstore of your choice. (Local bookstore participants in the program include Eagle Harbor Book Company, Edmonds Bookshop, the Elliott Bay Book Company, Island Books, Liberty Bay Books, Phinney Books, Third Place Books, University Book Store, and Village Books.)

But recently, Libro.fm opened up a new membership program that's pretty exciting: it's basically an indie version of Amazon's Audible monthly membership: for $14.99 a month, you buy an audio book. If you buy more than one audiobook per month, you get 30 percent off every other purchase on Libro.fm. You get to keep your audiobooks if you choose to end your membership, and a portion of your membership fee goes to the independent bookstore of your choice. I hope if you're a member of Audible you'll consider making the leap to Libro.fm; I know I'm going to join as soon as I've listened through the audiobooks I've already purchased.

Heavy is the head

Published March 14, 2017, at 11:49am

Dujie Tahat reviews Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib's The Crown Ain't Worth Much.

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib's first poetry collection combines hip-hop, poetry, and spoken word into a book that speaks to America right now.

Read this review now

Vigilant

It’s hard to remain human
on a day when mercy is a frozen river,
when the news informs me tomorrow’s
as bleak as it was yesterday, tells me
yesterday couldn't have left love
lingering listlessly on my bed all eager
hands and doe-eyed, says
there’s no room for beauty in this fight.
Liberals tell me, we must remain
vigilant. We can’t rest, relax,
let down our guard, but
don’t they know I’ve been vigilant
all my life? Yielding to white spaces
like ocean to keel.

I was vigilant when,
in high school, white friends
proclaimed, I don’t see
color, then painted their bodies
with sun, as if skin were a lipstick
they could apply to the perfect shade of
not too dark. These days
it’s disguised in praise, like
“what a beautiful mix you are, as if to say,
be grateful you’re not as black
as you could have been.

I’ve vigilantly guarded my mind
around men who only valued my body.
Guarded my body from men
who think permission is for “pussies,”
who think a fistful is a proper unit
of measurement. When the cab driver
told me I must have a white parent
because I don’t “sound” black,
I vigilantly wrapped myself in my arms,
tried to imagine the sounds he’d make
without vocal cord or tongue
or his privilege.

Each time someone cracks a joke.
about a black man’s disproportionate
prowess, about a black man’s "laziness",
about a black boy’s "good for nothing father"
I want to vigilantly cradle my grown
brother in my arms and sing him
something soft and sweet to keep
his fists steady and his mind right, but
what right do I have keeping him in check
when they don’t take the time
to check their ignorance?

We try our best not to
but sometimes a woman must walk
down a dark street alone, must count
the number of parked vans, must keep
to the middle of the road, must stay out
of reach, must keep her eyes peeled, must
walk with wide steps, grab her crotch
like a man, spit like a man
(things they teach teen girls in self-defense),
must turn herself into something
a man would never desire, must be
masculine, be careful, be vigilant.

So when liberals say,
this is how we fight back, this is how
we’ll win, I want to tear my clothes off,
walk naked into rush hour traffic,
cut my feet on broken glass and car fragments,
breathe in exhaust fumes, let the poison
sink into my skin, grow an extra limb,
heart, head, become something
un-neutered, volatile, dangerous,
become something able to withstand
the next four years.