Every week, the Seattle Review of Books backs a Kickstarter, and writes up why we picked that particular project. Read more about the project here. Suggest a project by writing to kickstarter at this domain, or by using our contact form.
What's the project this week?
She Changed Comics. We've put $20 in as a non-reward backer
Who is the Creator?
What do they have to say about the project?
She Changed Comics tells the untold story of the pioneering women who changed free expression in comics!
What caught your eye?
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has been fighting censorship, and for free expression in comics since 1989. By offering legal support to indie creators who find themselves looking at potential lawsuits, the CBLDF can be a life-saver, sometimes stopping potential lawsuits before they start.
As if that wasn't cool enough, this project She Changed Comics is a book that tells the story of women's influence in comics, from the Golden Age, to working under the Comics Code, on to underground and indie comics of all kinds.
It will feature a look back and the history of the women who made comics in the past, and interview working artists today.
Why should I back it?
If you love comics, this is a must-back. No doubt you've heard of some of the women who will be covered — Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel, say — but you'll learn about women who didn't get as much public attention, but still were incredibly influential on comics, and these artists and creators.
How's the project doing?
They're kicking ass. 357% of their $10,000 goal. But man, they are well worth backing. They've killed three stretch goals, but there are still two to go....
Do they have a video?
Over at The Inlander, I wrote a piece about Seattle memoirist Elissa Washuta, who'll be reading at Get Lit!, Spokane's wonderful annual book festival. We talked about the distinction of being a memoirist versus being an essayist, whether people got mad at Washuta for the way they were presented in her memoir, and what the most surprising thing about publishing a memoir. I love introducing Seattle's authors to new audiences; I hope you'll go take a look at the piece.
CEPHALOPOD WRITING CONTEST! (Deadline April 17th): In conjunction with a special cephalopod-inspired photography exhibition by Jen Strongin up now in the Hugo House gallery through the end of April, the Cephalopod Appreciation Society is having its first-ever writing contest. Write a piece inspired by one or more of the images on display in the gallery for a chance to present your writing at this year’s Cephalopod Appreciation Society meeting on April 29th at Hugo House. (Plus prizes!) Contest Guidelines: Open to poetry, short prose, comics, and hybrid forms. Submit 1-3 pieces (no more than 8 pages max) to email@example.com as one Word or PDF file. Be sure to include your name, contact info, and title of your piece(s) in the email, but do not include your name on the submission itself. Winners selected from a Youth Category (up to 18 years old, indicate “YOUTH” with your submission email) and General Submission Category. -- Please share widely!
This wonderful appreciation of the library card as an object unfortunately has a click-baity headline — "Is the Library Card Dying?" — but it links to some beautiful online library card collections, and so it's worth your time.
Last night at Emerald City Comicon, DC Comics announced that My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way will be overseeing a mature-readers imprint called Young Animal for the company. Titles include Doom Patrol, Shade the Changing Girl, and — this is maybe the best title in the history of comics — Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye.
Here's a headline that says it all: "Adult colouring book craze prompts global pencil shortage."
Calvin Trillin's obnoxious, poorly written, and racially insensitive poem in the New Yorker was a bad situation and a black eye for the New Yorker's much-vaunted editing process, but it has given rise to some very good response poetry. Fatimah Asghar dedicates her poem "To the White Men Who Fear Everything," to "you who reminded me no sidewalk or park/would ever be mine." Craig Santos Perez wonders, "Have they run out of franchises yet?/If they haven’t, our health has reason to fret." Franny Choi asks "Have They Run Out of White Poets Yet?" ("But then Ezra looked toward the East/to spice up his post-War can of meat...") Talya Zax responds, "Oh Trillin, our food-focused, sharply-phrased poet,/You’ve bungled, you’ve mis-hit, we’re sure that you know it." And Eddie Huang tweeted his response poem:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
I ride the new Link light rail from Husky Stadium to Pioneer Square (it's pretty great). I've seen this same girl on the train nearly every day, our schedules are so close. And she's always reading the best books. Seriously, like this manga series I've been following for years, that I thought nobody else was into.
But, I know that harassing women who want to be left alone in public isn't cool, and she's probably just going to work. Is there something I can say to her, not a line, but just a little opening, to see if I get any response? I mean, is it out of line to say something about our shared tastes?
Tremulous on the Train
Everyone who reads enjoys being complimented on their taste in books. Many years ago I was flipping through a copy of one of my favorite books, A Confederacy of Dunces, at a garage sale and a shirtless man with a chest tattoo of a swastika knifing a black panther (one of the swastika arms was an actual arm with a knife in it) said to me, "That's a great book," to which I smiled and thought, "what a nice man." Such is the mighty power of literature.
Striking up a conversation with a woman is not harassment if you follow basic social cues:
Wear something non-psychotic, like a shirt and pants.
If she's got headphones in, leave her alone.
If she's not making eye contact with anyone around her, leave her alone.
Wait until there is a natural interruption to her reading, such as when you're both disembarking from the train. Then it's fine to tap her on the shoulder and say something like, "That's such a great book! Have you read TKTKTK?"
If all goes well and you get her contact information, do not send her an Evite for a party in your pants.
Sonny Liew is the author of the acclaimed The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a fictionalized history of a comic book artist in Singapore. Liew will be appearing, in conversation with our own Martin McClellan, at Elliott Bay Book Company Monday, April 11th, at 7:00pm. Come on down!
As we've mentioned, tonight is the very last Cheap Wine & Poetry event at the Hugo House. This is our pick for the best event of the evening; CW&P is a consistently great event, and this is its last time on the Hugo House stage before the House is demolished later this year. Further, the future of CW&P — and the answer to the question of whether CW&P even has a future — has not yet been announced. It's a milestone!
But I wanted to tell you about two other great events happening tonight, because it is an unusually jam-packed Thursday night in literary Seattle.
At Elliott Bay Book Company, Danielle Dutton, Tara Atkinson, and Jane Wong will read at 7 pm. Atkinson is a co-founder of the APRIL Festival and she writes excellent short fiction. Wong is one of Seattle's best poets. We've published two of her poems here at the Seattle Review of Books. And Dutton is the publisher of Dorothy, an indpendent press that publishes great women writers. She's also the author of Margaret the First, a novel about a writer in 17th century England, when women were basically not allowed to be writers. This looks like it'll be a spectacular evening.
And at Third Place Books Ravenna, three Seattle poets are reading: Natasha Moni, author of The Cardiologist's Daughter; Erin Malone, author of Hover; and Michael Schmeltzer, author of Elegy/Elk River and Blood Song. (Malone published a great poem titled "Time Capsule" here at the Seattle Review of Books a few months ago.) This is a high-quality lineup of wonderful Seattle poets celebrating National Poetry Month in one of our most charming neighborhood bookstores. What's not to love?
Every week, I go through all the upcoming events to find one literary event per evening to recommend to readers of the Seattle Review of Books. Most nights, I have to decide between at least two cool-looking events. Tonight, there were three. Which one are you going to? Choose wisely.
The first issue of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther was published yesterday, and it was one of those rare moments — like the time DC Comics killed Superman, back in the 1990s — when people who never go to comic book stores suddenly care about a single issue of a comic 1. The staff at Phoenix Comics yesterday estimated that they’d be sold out of all five dozen copies of the comic on their shelves by the end of the day. (That number doesn’t even include the issues that regular Phoenix customers like myself had reserved months ago.) Clearly, Black Panther is pulling new and long-since-lapsed readers into comics stores, a feat which not even a seemingly relentless onslaught of comic book movies can manage.
With all due respect to Stelfreeze, who is one of the best cover artists in superhero comics, those sales are due to the fact that everyone is anxious to see how Coates does with a new medium. Readers expecting a superheroic sequel to Between the World and Me — whatever that would even look like — will be disappointed. Coates has indicated repeatedly that he’s a lifelong fan of Marvel Comics, and that he’s interested in writing a superhero comic.
And so Black Panther is a superhero comic, through and through. It opens with a big fight, packed with laser blasts and super-powers and costumes. It’s dramatic, even operatic, and it’s a lot of fun to read. But even Coates at his nerdiest is still Coates, and his day-job interests are on display here: politics, race, violence, capital punishment. Even the plot seems of-the-moment for a United States whose political structures are hemorrhaging themselves to pieces: the Black Panther is a king of a high-tech African nation called Wakanda, but after years of turmoil his people seem ready for a new ruler.
Like some of the best superhero comics, Black Panther proudly waves the banners of its influences: Kanye West lyrics, tributes to other comics creators, elements of Afrofuturism. Coates is slathering the pop culture on thick, here, and it’s delicious. He's especially gifted at dialogue; the economy of word balloons and captions often escapes writers more used to the vast expanse of prose, but the words on the page in Black Panther strike just the right mix of portentousness, exposition, and brevity. Here’s the Black Panther’s internal monologue from early in the issue:
I came here to praise the heart of my country, the vibranium miners of the Great Mound. For I am their king and I love them as the father loves the child.
But among my children, all I found was hate.
The hate spread.
And so there is war.
You can practically hear the soundtrack ramping up behind those words (Brum-BAUMM!!!!) It reads like Stan Lee-style overblown dialogue, but with more natural poetry to it. The cadence has a majesty, a foreign rhythm, and the condescending tone — thinking of his citizens as children — indicates that perhaps the insurrection has a point to it. Those few words do a lot of work.
And so does Stelfreeze’s art. It’s been years since I’ve seen Stelfreeze do the interior of a book, and I missed his skill at storytelling. Take those first few pages where the Panther faces a crowd of angry Wakandans: every aspect of the melee is laid out plainly. Actions have consequences that we can see, and it’s possible to follow faces in the crowd throughout the fight. Later in the issue, Stelfreeze’s designs for Wakanda incorporate a whole host of visual vocabularies — African art, Egyptian design, weird Jack Kirby technology —to create a corner of the Marvel universe that we’ve never seen before.
In the end, Black Panther has to be one of the strongest first issues from a superhero comic publisher in a long time. It doesn’t feel too slight, or too weighty. It’s a ridiculously stylish package, with production values that put most of Marvel’s other output to shame. And it firmly situates a long-standing Marvel character into his own corner of the world, finally giving him a role and a purpose and a voice after years of disuse. This is what superhero comics should be doing all the time: crafting cultural moments around unique characters who resonate with the politics of the day.
It will be interesting to see what new comics readers make of Black Panther. They might not know that you should read the comic over a few times in order to fully appreciate it. The advertisements spread throughout the issue might prove to be too jarring for them. They might consider the years of backstory to be off-putting, rather than intriguing. In fact, a good portion of prospective Black Panther readers should probably wait for the trade paperback to come out this fall, because collected editions tend to be closer to the traditional reading experience than monthly episodic comics. ↩
The debut party for Lesley Hazleton's Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto last night at Town Hall was a fantastic experience. Hazleton delivered a talk that was part-extemporaneous/part-reading. Hazleton asked the audience to imagine that she held the sun in her hand, that it was about the size of an orange; the Earth, she said, would be a grain of salt circling her hand at 30 feet. The nearest star to our sun would be another orange, approximately in Big Sur. Using examples like that, Hazleton continually deconstructed the audience's sense of scale, to infinity and beyond. The only real sour note of the evening came when two individual atheists took the microphone during Q&A to confront Hazleton about...something. One of the two older white men pronounced himself a "dogmatic atheist." Another said that if God were a person, He'd be thrown in prison for His crimes. (Not an original idea, and not especially relevant to the evening.) Neither had read the book, and neither had any clear points besides being angry about religion. During their tirades, the audience was audibly groaning, but Hazleton handled their non-questions with grace and compassion. By the end of the night, it felt like the rare reading event that perfectly captured the tenor and spirit of the book it was celebrating.
Congratulations to the 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship winners! The list of poets, critics, and novelists who won is very long, but it includes Seattle Review of Books favorites Jenny Offill and Laila Lalami.
At the LA Weekly, Jessica Langlois wonders whether AWP can overcome the lack of diversity in literature:
I was reading Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric in a hotel bar in downtown Los Angeles Saturday afternoon when I got a series of texts from my partner, who was in Ventura County, sitting by a lake and writing poetry. The police were harassing him. Three white men with guns. He is brown-skinned and has a thick beard. They’d threatened to tase our dog, a rambunctious puppy. “I’m so scared,” he wrote me.
My struggles are no different from any other developer on the App Store. If you have a game or social media app, you’re golden in Apple’s eyes. Anything else, forget it. (Unless you’re a big publisher, then you’re golden too).
How did poet Patricia Lockwood manage to tweet "fuck me daddy" at Donald Trump from the New Republic's Twitter handle? Well, thereby hangs a tale...
Was Hamlet fan-fiction? Not really, but it is important to note that copyright has absolutely changed the way that writers find inspiration.
Bookslut's editor Jessa Crispin has written a long essay titled "The Self-Hating Book Critic." It's full of bleak thoughts about the future of literature — Crispin has admitted that she's pulling the plug on Bookslut because she's done with modern American literature — but it's also full of some very incisive thoughts about the sorry state of modern book reviewing:
It makes sense to me that when the system goes wobbly, the critical culture responds by saying, “From now on, we will only run positive reviews.” It is a long list of publications and critics who have come out saying this, from The Believer to Buzzfeed to assorted Internet communities. But that of course is not criticism, it is enthusiasm. And enthusiasm only happens in long form when all uncertainties and unknowns have been weeded out. When expectations are met. It is a way to regain control. Uncertainty causes anxiety, and when things are already uncertain due to a literary system in flux, it is easier to close off, to shut the gates, to only admit those whose entrance is guaranteed. To, you know, review your friends.
The books-and-booze-and-bands reading series, founded on the revolutionary concept that readings can and should be fun, celebrates its third anniversary with a brand-new home at Chop Suey and a killer lineup: poet Michelle Peñaloza, author Anca Szilagyi, poet Anastacia Tolbert, young adult author Sean Boudoin novelist Gint Aras, and musical act The Wild. Chop Suey, 1325 Madison St, 538-0556, litfixseattle.com $5. 21+. 7 p.m. (Full disclosure: the Seattle Review of Books is a media sponsor of this edition of Lit Fix. No money was exchanged or anything like that; we're just big fans and so we gave them ad space in the Seattle Weekly to promote their reading.)
The long-running series pairing compelling poets with $1 wine will gather one last time on Hugo House’s stage. Readers Roberto Ascalon, Sarah Galvin, Tara Hardy, and—her again!—Michelle Peñaloza will see the series off in style. Will CW&P continue? Will it move with Hugo House or find a new venue? Stay tuned. Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave, 322-7030, hugohouse.org. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.
Emerald City Comicon is this weekend, and if you haven’t already gotten tickets, you’re out of luck—the show is completely sold out. But there are a couple satellite events happening that you can attend, even if you don’t have tickets to the big show. First up, on Thursday night at 7 pm, Arcane Comics in Ballard is hosting their second annual All Star Comics party with local cartoonists alongside national comics pros like Jim Mahfood and Alex De Campi. And on Saturday night at 7 pm, Phoenix Comics on Broadway is hosting a party for the popular podcasters behind Jay & Miles X-plain the X-Men.
Even more interesting is Hometown Heroes, a new one-night comics show dedicated to showing off the best cartooning talent Seattle has to offer. Hometown Heroes was inspired in part by complaints from local cartoonists who feel abandoned outside Emerald City’s gates. The minicomics and alt-comics scene in Seattle has for some time now felt marginalized by ECCC’s increasing mass-media vibe, and this year many Seattle cartoonists were unable to even acquire tables at the show. On Facebook, local cartoonists grumble that ECCC has forgotten the local scene that helped make the convention such a big deal to begin with — though it must be noted that it’s not like the city has been locked out of its own convention entirely; Seattle cartoonists like Colleen Frakes and Peter Bagge are featured ECCC guests.
Still, the guest list for Hometown Heroes certainly does look like a who’s who in the Seattle comics underground: James The Stanton, Ben Horak, Katie Wheeler, Marc Palm, Josh Simmons, Noel Frankln, Bagge, Seth Goodkind, Gina Siciliano, and Max Clotfelter are all on the bill. The guest of honor is Stefano Gaudiano, a local inker perhaps best known for his work on The Walking Dead. Hometown Heroes is organized by 80% Studios, the local cartoonists behind the full-color local comics anthology Nemesis Enforcer, a new issue of which will be available at the event. Sponsors for the show include local comics stores Zanadu, Comics Dungeon, Fantagraphics, and Arcane Comics. It’s about as homegrown as it gets.
Hometown Heroes takes place at 1927 Events, an event space about ten minutes’ walk from the Washington State Convention Center. Attendance is free, and everyone who shows up gets a free comic. It’s another testament to Seattle’s cartooning community that our comics convention has become so successful that it needs a supplementary comics show just to showcase all the awesome stuff being created in Seattle right now. This is shaping up to be the hot-ticket Emerald City Comicon afterparty, a more relaxed space where the people who are more serious about comics and less interested in, say, meeting Nathan Fillion in person can gather to talk about the craft, gossip about the personalities, and check out the latest work from Seattle’s alt-comics scene. This is what community looks like.
1927 Events, 1927 3rd Ave, 979-7467, 80percentstudios.tumblr.com. Free. All ages. 6:30 p.m.
This is a party to celebrate the launch of a book about Greenwood written by students and professional writers (including, full disclosure, me). Come and raise a glass of milk to toast the publication of the book, and the unbreakable spirit of the neighborhood that book celebrates. We'll have more about the book and the party later on today, right here on the Seattle Review of Books.
Greenwood Senior Center, 525 N. 85th St., 297-0875, fearlessideas.org. Free. All ages. 2 p.m.
All of Mary Roach’s books, about death and space travel and sex and eating, begin with a simple question: what happens next? She’s wildly curious and unashamedly willing to ask the most indelicate questions to track down answers. (Most people would call asking astronauts about their sex lives “rude.” Roach calls it “research.”) Because of this, Roach’s readings are absolute delights; the only thing she loves more than learning is sharing her findings with an audience. Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., 425-257-0875, Free. All ages. 7:30 p.m.
How do you invite a reader into your story without over-setting the table, telegraphing the ending, or otherwise losing the audience? Donna Miscolta—author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced and the upcoming story collection Hola and Goodbye—hosts this free writing class focused intently on beginnings. Seattle Public Library, Beacon Hill Branch, 2821 Beacon Ave. S, 684-4711, spl.org. Free. All ages. 2 p.m.
Singapore-based cartoonist Liew debuts his dazzling new book The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a meta-biography of an influential elderly Singaporean cartoonist who happens to have never existed. Liew will discuss comics history, Singapore, and more onstage tonight with Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, elliottbaybook.com. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.
The Seattle Public Library continues their monthlong celebration of Shakespeare’s First Folio with the Bard in a Bar series. Tonight, Hamlet is presented via drunken crowdsourcing. Many of the world’s best ideas — Wikipedia, the Constitution — are a result of drunken crowdsourcing, so this should end well. Solo Bar, 200 Roy St., 213-0800, spl.org. Free. 21+. 8 p.m..
Seattle Arts & Lectures lives up to their mission statement of bringing big-name authors to town with Jacqueline Woodson, the National Book Award-winning author of exquisite young adult novels like Brown Girl Dreaming, Beneath a Meth Moon, and Hush. Expect a conversation about the reality in her semi-autobiographical book. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, townhallseattle.org. $15-60. All ages. 7:30 p.m.
I am all for the idea of states naming official books. (Make Way for Ducklings is, adorably, Massachusetts's official children's book.) But I'm not a fan of this move:
Tennessee is poised to make history as the first state in the nation to recognize the Holy Bible as its official book.
The problem is, of course, Tennessee lawmakers aren't just naming a state book by doing this; they're effectively naming Christianity the official state religion. Instead of the Bible, a book that I can promise was neither written nor set in Tennessee, why not make Cormac McCarthy's semiautobiographical novel Suttree the state book instead? It's set in Tennessee, and it's an underappreciated McCarthy novel. Why not promote literacy, rather than waging a petty and unnecessary religious war?
It's funny how much we ate —
we couldn't stop.
First dinner, then desert,
then the plates and the table.
At the show, she ate the stage,
I swallowed the microphones.
Back at the room we ate the chairs
the shower and the television.
Naked, breasts poised like the dark mystery
at the center of faith, she devoured the bed —
Behind her, arms around her victorious stomach,
I knew what it would take to fill us up.
Nothing short of a falling chunk of sun,
something nuclear come to love us clean,
burn our shadow into the wall just like this.
Sponsor Floating Bridge Press is back to feature a great work from Maya Jewell Zeller, titled Yesterday, the Bees. Zeller's piece was a finalist in the 2015 chapbook competition, a work that looks at parenting, and being a part of a family.
We have two poems from the work on our sponsors page for you to read. Be sure to look, and click through to their website to find out more about Zeller's work, and the other chapbook winners. Thank you, Floating Bridge for your sponsorship!
If you're a small publisher, writer, poet, or foundation that is looking to back our work, and advertise your own in an inexpensive and expressive way, take a look at our open dates. We'd love to talk to you about opportunities to sponsor us. It's our way of making internet advertising something to look forward to.
Now that I am home and eating real meals again, there is time to mull over all the cringey moments of AWP 2016. Like when I bum-rushed Kevin Young in order to gush about how much my middle school students loved his poem “Ode to Gumbo.” I actually said, “you’ve got fans in the 8th grade, Kevin.” And then ran away. Or when I stood right behind Rachel Kushner at a small private reception, stared at her hair and, like a super creep, didn’t say anything. Yes, she was wearing leather pants. I think. It was dark and a nervous fan-girl film came over my eyes. Then I ran away for a minute, but the bouncer wouldn’t let me back in. Or when I rushed up to an author I admire and pressed my weird book upon him and said, “bye!” like a three-year-old. I even waved my hand down low in a weird, rapid erasing move, as if I were cute, and small. A toddler would have been charming. I was a weird lady at a conference doing a lot of running.
After spending a few hours shame spiraling and Hoovering cheese puffs, I remembered my haul of books and settled in with Franny Choi’s Floating Brilliant Gone (Write Bloody, 2014). One of the saddest parts of AWP is all the simultaneous events, some of them spread out all over the city, which was made more difficult by LA’s sprawl and car-centric architecture, and the fact that one cannot attend several panels at once. Clearly, I am easily over-stimulated (see above), but, in debriefing with comrades post-AWP, there were many opportunities to kick myself for missing certain events, like Choi’s reading with Danez Smith as part of the Dark Noise Collective. But I have her book, and many more glinting in my stack – memory palaces of my path through the bookfair, where I pinged back and forth all over the place like multiball. John Hankiewicz’s Asthma (poetry dance comics), Nick Courtright’s Let There Be Light (the Genesis creation myth in reverse), Bianca Stone’s Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours, and many more.
I received three lucky amulets this year: a small crystal, a silver Viking homunculus, and a tiny plastic sea anemone. It happened like this: right at the moment I was so tired, or hungry, or feeling so very alone, one of my favorite writer friends (thank you, Corinne Manning, Katie Ogle, Sierra Nelson) would appear and say, “how are you doing?” and palm me this small charm. It reminded me of when I ran a half-marathon, and halfway up this dreadful hill, a woman cheering us on handed me a baggie of gummy bears. The memory of the sweetness and the tiny bumps of bear limbs on my tongue in tandem with her cowbell of a voice can still propel me to huff up that hill. Likewise, I worry these small tokens in my pocket throughout AWP-ing, and stand them next to my head while I sleep to watch over me, miniature guardians, kitchen witches of conference, hoping they will confer on me some of their givers’ wisdom.
I am still mulling over all that went on, remembering Mark Doty explaining how to embrace frustration, discussing the methods he uses to disrupt — changing point of view, tense, syntax, tone, form, even using C.D. Wright’s writing it backwards exercise, to generate surprise. Inspired by a National Geographic photo of a frozen baby mammoth, he found himself struggling to be faithful to history, chafing against “the whole ‘objective’ thing.” He recognized he needed to be faithful to art, and to himself. Kimiko Hahn described it as that moment when she let her character say, “who are you to speak for me?” And here is what Doty’s perfectly preserved ice baby, brought up from the underworld, said:
I am still one month old,
and forty thousand years without
I carry this image of aloneness on a scale I can barely fathom – 40,000 years — with me as I move through LAX and home again. How it is to be alone in a crowd of 12,000 like-minded strangers – and the unlikelihood that any of our words will travel that far through time like this baby mammoth, its legs frozen and preserved mid-stride. And how many little things – extremely ancient rocks, warrior miniatures, sea creatures posing as plants, OK! Magazine, minutes waiting in cars – might have something to say if I am listening.
Editor's note: Donna Miscolta here writes about an exclusive reading she helped organize. In order to attend, you must be an employee of King County. If you are, on April 7th, the program will be welcoming Troy Osaki and Hamda Yusuf for the next in the series of four. The final two: on June 15, the program will have Anis Gisele and Shin Yu Pai, and on September 13 Kiana Davis and Djenaway Se-Gahon. Email her for details if you're eligible and would like to attend.
There are probably not many sentences in which the words poetry and government appear together, but here’s one from the heading of a Washington Post article published last April: “Poetry is going extinct, government data show.”
The article reported that “In 1992, 17 percent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year. Twenty years later that number had fallen by more than half, to 6.7 percent.”
First, we might wonder why government is tracking such a thing, to which one might ask rhetorically, “What doesn’t the government track?”
Second, we might wonder, how exactly are they getting such information? It’s called the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a product of a partnership between the NEA and the United States Census Bureau. Here’s one of the survey’s findings: “According to the latest numbers, poetry is less popular than jazz. It's less popular than dance, and only about half as popular as knitting. The only major arts category with a narrower audience than poetry is opera – not exactly surprising, given the contemporary state of that art.”
Who knew that it was the role of government to offer this observation of doom: “Over the past 20 years, the downward trend is nearly perfectly linear – and doesn't show signs of abating.” The article is full of dire-looking graphs that resemble the bad news spit from an EKG monitor. If poetry is going extinct, then so must be the poets, right?
Over their dead bodies, they’re likely to reply.
Poets will persist. They will survive because they are necessary. They have stories to tell. And as Sherman Alexie says. “I firmly believe in the power of stories to change the world, and I firmly believe in the power of one story to change one life at a time.”
So here’s another sentence in which the words poetry and government appear together: Local poets present their work to King County government employees in a series on race and racism.
I’ve worked in government at the local level for almost thirty years. My job is to plan, design, and oversee projects that create opportunities for residents to conserve resources for a more sustainable future. But what’s a sustainable future without poetry? I’m working on a project with three colleagues to bring poets in to county government offices to read work that reflects their experience in a racialized world. It’s part of the county’s commitment to equity and social justice that must begin with a recognition that racism exists, that it’s been institutionalized in our systems, and that we all have a responsibility to change it. One story at a time is as good a strategy as any.
On January 12, about fifty King County employees assembled in a large conference room in a downtown office building to listen to the poetry of Quenton Baker and Casandra Lopez. It was a new experience for both poets and audience. Baker, upon stepping to the podium, elicited laughter when he remarked that this was the first time he’d come to a government building to read poetry to government employees.
Baker, tall and lanky with an untamed Afro, appears shy and serious. He’s anything but shy when he delivers his poems or banters with the audience or provides context for a piece he’s about to read. He’s straightforward, earnest, and utterly himself, which means he doesn’t alter his language even when in a government conference room full of government employees. If the f word is the right word for the moment and the sentiment, then that’s what glides comfortably off his tongue, whether in his poems or in his speech. And if his poems are serious, dark, and angry, his laughter and smile are quick. Despite never having read poems in a government building, this, nevertheless, is his milieu – a room full of listeners. In this room, the audience was mostly white (and mostly female).
Baker and Lopez took turns at the podium for two rounds of intensely felt and powerfully delivered poems that allowed the audience to see racism through the personal and very vivid lens of poetry.
Baker says his poetry “begins from a place of love and is primarily interested in pushing back against stereotypes, implicit biases, and the myriad ways that various forms of supremacy act on and envelop us all.” Here’s the opening of “Diglossic in the Second America,” which Baker gave us in the cadence of his hip hop roots:
If you're kind, you say high or low. Honest: you say [default] or black.
But we don't say black. Not now. Only dog whistles: welfare queen
tough on crime. Wow! Look at her run, such a natural athlete.
What I mean is: two tongues: high and low speech; white teeth and suit or thug.
But don't I have both? Little mulatto codebreaker, identity that jump cuts like a running back.
Wait, am I even black? How black? On a scale of rapist to corner boy?
Lopez noted the similarities in themes between her work and Baker’s. But there is also similarity in the origin of their work. Most of Lopez’s work explores issues related to loss, identity, diaspora, race, grief, and healing. She says that “though her work tackles difficult subjects, she writes from a place of compassion which allows for multiple points of entry into her work.” Here’s a segment from Lopez’s piece titled “a few notes about public grief.”
don’t look too tattooed. don’t look too uneducated. don’t look too brown or black. don’t look too human, like a person who has made mistakes or has a drink at the end of a long day. don’t look like a person who laughs too loudly with a mouth of joy or someone’s whose body sobs history because that will make you look too brown or too black or too other. remember, you want the judge, officials, and jury to identify with you. don’t give them reason to see you as a thug, gangster or whore. don’t give them a chance to see you as too black or too brown, or too foreign.
When asked by an audience member how they have the courage to write what they do, both poets responded similarly – that it’s not so much a matter of courage, as a need, even an obsession to put their stories on the page. “For black people, survival is such an everyday concern,” Baker said. For both poets, writing seems to be a survival strategy, a way to process for themselves and others their reality in a racialized society.
Lopez, too, despite her poems of tragedy and gun violence, laughs readily, joking between poems. The genuine warmth of her personality suffuses the room, her quickness to laughter perhaps a mechanism to deflect the pain of her words. She gestures often as she reads, a repetitive motion, a slicing with a palm or a pretend pounding of the fist to give stress to her words, or perhaps relieve stress from speaking them.
“I didn’t expect to feel so much,” an audience member said during the discussion following the readings. Someone else, while stressing the value of the event, acknowledged her occasional discomfort.
Did the poets feel any discomfort? Baker replied that if he didn’t feel discomfort then there would be no reason for him to be there.
“What can government do to authentically address inequity?” asked another in the audience.
The artists picked up on and appreciated the word authentically, a clear signal that the questioner was committed to action. Baker said that government has to understand how deep racism is and how much work it takes to break down the power structures that keep out certain segments of the population. Lopez added, “There are people who are doing a lot of this work on their own, but they need a more supportive structure in which to operate.” That seems like an argument for more sentences that combine the words poetry and government.
Because we’re government and we must measure everything we do, we conducted a survey of the audience. Overwhelmingly, respondents indicated the event had increased their understanding about race and racism. And while one commenter worried over the multiple times the phrase “white supremacy” arose, another cheered, “Let’s keep it going – the work is not done yet!” Not by a long shot is it done.
When we asked the poets what could be improved about the program, we got this suggestion: Get more white men in the room. We have three more chances to do that with events in April, June, and September. We’re tracking attendance. Maybe it’ll be a graph in our final report.
In the 40 years I’ve been writing book reviews for national periodicals, it’s rare that one of my reviews is reviewed. In a recent post, Paul Constant called my review of Sweeney’s The Nest in the Daily Beast “unfair.” “Wrong” I could silently accept, but “unfair” seems unfair. Since I assume readers have not committed his piece to memory, I’ll quote from it in italics and respond:
First of all, I don’t care if marketing materials mention the author advance explicitly: there is almost no good reason for a book critic to ever mention an advance in a review.
Generally I’d agree, but I had a good reason. It was not only Sweeney, an unknown writer, who received a million-dollar advance for a first novel. Three other recent first novelists I mentioned received similar advances, which were used to promote their books as new literary discoveries when, in fact, most if not all of the books were conventional (and therefore commercial) works with a patina of literary sophistication—what I called “commercialit.” As I said, I don’t begrudge Sweeney the money. As I also said (but Constant ignored), my worry is that paying such advances for “commercialit” will make it more difficult for truly literary writers—those who might be read 20 years from now--to get their work published by major publishers.
But more importantly, the Creation of a Term to Identify a Publishing Trend You Just Now Noticed is a bad reviewing trope. LeClair shoehorned four different books into a category — “commercialit” — that doesn’t even make sense. So these books are well-written but “safe,” whatever that means?
Since Constant doesn’t specify how the four books are different or how they are literary, I have my doubts that he has read any of them. They are different in subject but similar in their traditional storytelling burnished with M.F.A. sophistication. I take some pains to say what “safe” means and contrast the four first novels with dangerous literary novels by a range of contemporary writers.
This is not a trend that was created by a new generation of writers.
Middlebrow or commercial fiction has been with us since Hawthorne’s “scribbling ladies.” What seems new to me is that young or youngish writers with M.F.A. degrees are producing work that can be marketed as literary when the work is something less than that. My informants in and from M.F.A. programs tell me that much of their instruction now is in how to succeed, not in how to produce original and quality work.
This is not to say that there isn’t an interesting piece to be written about the publishing industry spending too much money on debut novels. But that piece is not a book review. It’s a reported piece, with interviews and supporting evidence and facts and sales numbers.
What Constant calls my “trend piece” had to be at least partly a review (The Nest was the occasion to examine the larger issues.) because the piece was about literary quality, not something that a “reported piece…with facts and sales numbers” would likely address. My “supporting evidence” is the described limitations of Sweeney’s writing. Readers of the other three novels I mentioned can form their own opinions.
Stop trying to make “commercialit” happen, Mr. LeClair. It’s not going to happen.
I regret to say that “commercialit” has already happened. If Constant is not a fledgling, he should know this. If he’s not happy with my term, he could at least admit literary publishing has been commercialized in the last ten years by the takeover of independent literary publishers by large entertainment conglomerates that can pay enormous advances and reap promotional benefits from those sums. Fledgling writers know this, so it’s understandable—if unfortunate--that they would write for the market that exists.
Finally, Mr. LeClair is always happy to be addressed by and receive advice from an experienced editor, but I have to wonder if Mr. Constant had an editor for his piece (as I did for mine in the Daily Beast). I’m a reviewer, not an editor, but it looks to me as if Constant took an immediate dislike to my remarking on Sweeney’s advance and then offered a series of disconnected questions and assertions that didn’t engage in a coherent way with the argument I was making, and that’s what I thought was unfair. At the top of his piece, Constant makes it known that as a co-founder of a review site he is busy, busy, busy writing. This may explain the slapdash structure and even the slightly snarky address of Mr. LeClair. A worrier, I’m concerned that Constant’s piece may represent some or much of web discourse, blog-like writing that is self-edited or that is so rushed to fill space that it seems unedited. So, since Constant takes it upon himself to advise me in his piece, I’ll advise him to find an editor before he “publishes” in the journal of opinion that he co-founded.
Tom LeClair is the author of three critical books, six novels, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated literary journals, magazines, and newspapers.
Thank you for writing in. As you yourself note, there is absolutely nothing new about this friction between commercial fiction and literary fiction. You’re just slapping a new name on an ancient conflict with your “commercialit” label. For centuries, critics played at this silly gatekeeping game, and it’s part of the reason why literary criticism has withered away in the age of the internet. Book critics must give up on this hoary construct — this author is a sellout; this author is a pure artist — if they expect literary criticism to survive as an art form for the next hundred years.
Advocates of commercial fiction like to frame literary fiction as elitist; advocates of literary fiction tend to argue, as you do, about whether commercial fiction is somehow worth “less” than literary fiction. These arguments are both uninteresting; they imply a binary choice where no binary choice exists. I have never once visited a home where the bookshelves for serious, literary novels are separate from the bookshelves for “commercial” fiction. Most of the avid readers I’ve met somehow manage to read and enjoy both. Why not try to find the value in a book, rather than wringing your hands over the attribution of pointless labels?
As the Seattle Review of Books reported back at the beginning of March, John Marshall, owner of the Wallingford poetry-only bookshop Open Books, announced that he was retiring from the bookselling business. In an email to his customers, Marshall indicated that he wanted to sell the bookstore, that sales at Open Books were still strong, and that he believed a new owner could even make something more of the store.
So, one month after the announcement, how does Marshall feel? “Overwhelmed, tired and ecstatic in different degrees at different times,” he says. Marshall and I are sitting in the back room at Open Books just after closing time, talking about the response the store has received. He says within a day and a half of sending the e-mail to the Open Books list, he already had more than 30 offers to purchase the store in his inbox. “Most of [the offers] were well-meaning and thoroughly ill-thought out, and that’s fine,” Marshall says. “People’s hearts are very large organs, but their bank accounts may not be” as large.
“We’re deep in conversation with somebody who I think would be a terrific owner,” Marshall says.
Marshall was completely bowled over by the love that Open Books has received in the past month. “The chagrin and the love and the number of queries about buying the store was absolutely overwhelming — way more than I expected. It’s hard to understand how you’re perceived when you’re on the inside,” he says. It reminded him that “there is a lot of affection for Open Books.” He adds that, sales-wise, “there’s no shot in the arm like saying you’re on the way out.” March sales ended 60 percent above March 2015, which is of course wonderful news, but which adds a whole other difficulty to the process of screening for new owners: Marshall has to keep up with ordering new titles to make up for all the books that are being bought. It’s undoubtedly a good problem to have, but it still takes up time.
So, uh, how’s the sale of the bookstore going? Is there going to still be an Open Books after Marshall retires? “We’re deep in conversation with somebody who I think would be a terrific owner,” Marshall says. He describes the process of the sale as in the “closing stages,” and while he declines to name the prospective owner until all the paperwork is signed, he says the talks entered “lawyer-land” a couple weeks ago, and that she gave her blessing for Marshall to mention the progress in an interview with the Seattle Review of Books.
Marshall describes the prospective new owner of Open Books as “a very regular customer and a very passionate person about poetry, a very thoughtful person about poetry, and a kick to be around. I like her a lot.” He says that he never considered her as a possible buyer of the store, but she was the first person to get in touch with him when he made his announcement. It’s been moving steadily forward ever since. “As well as the talks were going, I was sure I was going to to say something stupid” and ruin the whole thing, Marshall says, but that moment hasn’t happened yet: “last weekend, all sorts of dollar figures were being exchanged.”Now, he says, “I’m much calmer about it, but I still knock on wood. Don’t fuck with the gods — they will turn on you in a moment.”
The idea of Open Books continuing with someone else at the helm excites Marshall. He looks forward to the reinvigoration that a new, younger owner will bring to the store. “I think the internet could be used more as a sales tool and as a medium,” Marshall says. “I grew very tired of throwing readings,” he says, but “I think going back to a reading a week” would probably be advisable. “Reaching out to a broader customer base with the mighty internet” is important, “but getting more bodies in the building” is essential. “I hope the next owner brings community with her, and I’m sure she will.”
Marshall has been thinking a lot about the idea of founder survival, the idea of an institution growing beyond its originator. “If there’s a model — and I really don’t know jack shit about it — I fancy Allan Kornblum, who ran out of Iowa City a very wild press called Toothpaste Press which went on to become Coffee House Press. And then when he retired he moved it along so that the next person was in place for a while and then he stepped aside and he continued to be associated with it.” Does that mean Marshall envisions some kind of a relationship with the bookstore in the future? “To whatever extent it’s valuable, I hope to be connected with Open Books moving forward,” he says.
Open Books is the Seattle Review of Books Bookstore of the Month for April. Every Monday this month, we’ll be talking with Marshall not just about the future of the bookstore, but about its legacy and history, too. More than just about anyone else in Seattle, Marshall has had a front-row seat for Seattle’s poetry scene over the last two decades. It’s an incredible legacy — one that will hopefully continue for years to come.