What big teeth you have, Gramma

Paul Constant

June 19, 2018

Back in April, I reported that two of Seattle's finest and most ambitious small presses — Mount Analogue and Cold Cube Press — were teaming up to take over the editorial operations of Seattle's liveliest independent publisher, Gramma Poetry. Based out of the XYZ Gallery in Pioneer Square, Mount Analogue publisher Colleen Louise Barry and Cold Cube cofounder Aidan Fitzgerald now hold the reigns over a sizable slice of the city's independent publishing output.

Gramma recently revamped the Weekly Gramma email newsletter into a kind of free-spirited literary clubhouse, or a tiny literary magazine. You can find an archive at Gramma's site. In three issues, they've already published a crackerjack poem from Seattle author Richard Chiem ("I break/a pencil/and I want to/Magneto everything/metal around me") and a beautiful little Lichtenstein-esque zen koan of a comic by Evan Cohen and video collages by LA Warman. The Weekly Gramma is cool and unapologetically artistic and it feels slightly dangerous, like anything can happen. Gramma is also publishing the Monthly Gramma as a beautiful newsletter printed with real ink on real paper and filled with poetry, interviews, art, and tiny book reviews, mailed out to a subscriber base that applies through the website.

This Saturday, June 23rd, Gramma is presenting a kind of second coming with a reading at the Erickson Theater on Capitol Hill featuring one of the most impressive lineups you'll find this summer: Gramma poet Stacy Tran will be joined by experimental writer Kate Durbin and Seattle icon Lindy West, along with an original dance performance. The event starts at 7 pm and tickets are $12. If you were a small publisher who wanted to announce your presence to the literary world, you pretty much couldn't do any better than this lineup. And Gramma is billing it as the first installment in a regular quarterly reading series! That's a lot of hype to live up to.

This is, it must be noted, a lot of work. Why did Barry and Fitzgerald feel compelled to continue Gramma as an imprint? Sure, Gramma made a splash with early poetry collections like Sarah Galvin's triumphant Ugly Time, but Fitzgerald and Barry both have published notable books on their own imprints. What is it about Gramma that's so special that it needed to continue, rather than be folded into Cold Cube and Mount Analogue?

The best answer to that question is in Portland poet Stacey Tran's Gramma title Soap for the Dogs, which right now feels like a flagship of Gramma Press. Tran's sharing a bill with Lindy freakin' West, after all – this is someone who demands your attention.

Soap is not what I'd call ragingly accessible poetry. Instead, it's a little opaque, a little willfully aggressive. These are poems that require you to sit with them for a while, to crack them open and see what's inside.

Soap is full of memorable lines that, taken on their own, feel like song lyrics to albums that were never written.

Question marks

are the wettest

part of my body

An incautious reading might dismiss this as nonsense — some words jammed together to sound like something real. But give it two seconds and the sex and flirtation and intimacy of the line comes pouring out, like the Overlook Hotel's elevator doors in The Shining. There's something coppery and alive back there. You can hear it surging.

One whole section of Soap is given over to what Tran has titled "Fake Haiku." It's pretty much just that — lines that might read like haiku to an untrained eye but which meet none of the criteria of actual haiku. None of the syllables scan right, and they don't always keep one foot planted in the natural world. They're haiku with a head injury, a transmission from a parallel universe:

Age isn't a thing, it's a balcony

Overlooking the water

Once in awhile, the trees are just green

Anyone who has felt the overhang of age can relate — that distance, the perch through which you gaze down on the world below. From the height granted through age, sometimes you miss some details.

Maybe my favorite poem in all of Soap is "Swimmer," a poem cut through with razor-sharp barricades made from punctuations like this: "[———]." I read "Swimmer" with those bracketed dashes intruding in the text like gasps of air. At regular intervals, the poem is put on hold for one of those cutting pauses — "[———]," — while Tran seems to run out of breath:

When she said soda[———]My teeth hurt[———]...[———]Dry[———]Here[———]Absorbing[———]Absolving[———]

You can triangulate Soap with other recent Gramma releases to get a sense of where the press is going. Jennifer Hayashida's A Machine Wrote This Song is somewhat aligned with Tran's lyrical playfulness, while adding a more nakedly narrative thrust. "Yonsei," for instance, begins:

A boy in private school khaki and white on the subway: he is half his mother, half his father, curvatures in translation from two languages. From certain angles, my father and I were almost familiar, yet I will never be fluent in him and he does not know about the new apartment, the barking dog, the neighbors' planters on fire.

That feels like a whole short story. While Tran casts beautiful little spells on readers, Hayashida drops novels throughout Machine. She turns an interview with her mother into a lopsided poem, a conversation into a monologue. She's exploding ideas into gigantic, airy poems and contracting family epics into just a few lines of poetry.

Emily Sieu Liebowitz's Gramma title National Park is more closely aligned with Hayashida's. Liebowitz is the funniest of the three — National Park opens with a nonsense transcription of the Marvelettes song "Mr. Postman," and it features poems titled "Outside Sucks/I Think I'm Gonna Take a Nap" and "Today They Tried to Blow Up the Moon/...How Embarrassing."

Liebowitz's poems are urban, with "cranes lifting cargo" and yachts on the waterfront and bells ringing at lunchtime. She waits for mail to arrive ("USPS is a time tease") and she stacks her poems with alliteration and internal rhymes. Liebowitz mashes words together just to see how they interact. She's always mixing and matching and performing surgery:

I am roped in. I go on sense-giving tours,

walked around by guides strangling their

lungs

singing anything

to make something sung.

Following them all over town, an echo

of a forgotten song, "in my dreams I've been in love."

Boy, me too.

Can you summon a Gramma aesthetic out of these three poets? Can you string together a mission statement for Gramma out of commonalities? I can't, except the poets are young, and they take seriously the responsibility of poets. These are unself-conscious poems, not hiding behind pretense or gimmickry or wonky design elements. They are poems, and they demand your time.

That's what I love about Gramma: their books don't swing around to your house and pick you up. You have to go meet them, maybe in a part of town that makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable. You have to get outside of yourself and into a Gramma poem. It's poetry that's worth leaving the house for.

Books in this review:
  • Soap for the Dogs
    by Stacey Tran

    March 01, 2018
    116 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • A Machine Wrote This Song
    by Jennifer Hayashida

    May 01, 2018
    120 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • National Park
    by Emily Sieu Liebowitz

    April 01, 2018
    70 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound
November 06, 2018

Seattle on the y axis

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Seattleness
    by
    Sasquatch Books
    October 22, 2018
    192 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
October 30, 2018

The pratfall of Rome

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Lachrymose Report
    by Sierra Nelson
    Poetry Northwest Editions
    October 30, 2018
    90 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound