Michelle Peñaloza has lived in Seattle for almost exactly four years. In that time, the poet and essayist — she’s the author of the chapbooks landscape/heartbreak and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes — has become a ubiquitous Seattle literary figure, both on stage and in audiences at literary events throughout the calendar year. Peñaloza's announcement that she will be leaving town at the end of February sent a shock through the community. She’s more than just a sharp observer and a deft and graceful poet — though she is that, too. She’s become an integral part of the literary community’s support system. It’s hard to imagine the city without her.
Peñaloza made time to talk over the phone in the middle of a very busy transitional week in her life. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Thank you for making this time for our readers. I really appreciate it; I know it's a very busy time for you. I guess, first of all, I am wondering if you'd be willing to talk about where you're going and why.
I won't get too specific, but basically I'm moving for love, so that my partner and I can be together full-time in California. That's reason, I think, to leave.
So say somebody in California asks you what the literary culture in Seattle is like, and what your experience has been. What do you think you'd say to them?
It's a very vibrant scene. I would say that I was very sad to leave it and that I've loved my time in Seattle. I've met so many incredible people, and I feel like I've been lucky to have such a great amount of support. Not that I don't work hard or anything, but I feel like I've been very supported as a writer in Seattle. I feel like I've had a lot of opportunities with Jack Straw and the Made at Hugo House Fellowship, and teaching at Hugo House. I was a visiting writer at Seattle U. I would say that my personal experience has been a very good one.
So you would recommend to Seattle to another writer who's asking your opinion about whether she should move here?
Yeah, it's the best city that I've ever lived in as a writer. Granted, part of that is where I am in my writing life, too. I finished grad school maybe two years before I moved here, so I was in a different spot than I'd ever been in my writing life. I think those just dovetailed in a very fortunate way for me in Seattle.
Also, I feel like it's big enough that there's lots of stuff going on. In fact, sometimes too much stuff going on. I feel like there's some months in Seattle that are just insane — like, October is always crazy because people have been coming down from summer. There's just reading upon reading upon readings.
I would say, I guess, if you're looking not to be too busy, I don't know if Seattle's the place for you.
Is there anything that you think that Seattle could do to be more supportive for writers?
One of the things I noticed when I first moved here, and then I sort of became part of that same pattern that I had noticed, is that a lot of Seattle readings series ask the same people to read. You'll see someone who's reading everywhere all the time for like a year. I feel like maybe spreading it around more, doing a better job of thinking like, "Oh, I just saw that person read. Maybe I should save them for later."
I feel like I've been that person before, where people were like, "There she is again! Geez, she's everywhere." I don't want to sound ungrateful, but I also think that a way to be more supportive of writers in general in Seattle is to not always have the same people read.
One other thing I would say is to organizers who run reading series or do anthologies or any sort of curation of writers is: try hard to make sure that if there are five readers in an event, don’t choose four white people and one brown person. Make sure that there’s always more than one person of color reading at an event.
You have so much geography in your work. Place is essential to your writing and I'm wondering if you thought about how moving from Seattle will affect your work or if you think Seattle is going to be represented in your work in the near future.
Every place I've lived has sort of made a mark, but I think Seattle will always be a part of my writing, whether or not it is obvious. Because I feel like Seattle's the first place, personally and professionally, that I ever felt fully myself. I know that sounds sort of lofty, but when I first moved to Seattle, I had just come out of pretty traumatic personal — for lack of a better word — shit that I was dealing with. I was escaping a lot of things.
Seattle was a city that, personally and professionally, welcomed me with open arms. I know that that's not necessarily a typical experience — people talk about the Seattle freeze, and they talk about how the literary scene can be hard to break into, but Seattle has been so special to me in that way.
Then, also, I met such incredible people here. It’s just a really close community of writers that I admire and that motivate and impress me.
Do you plan on coming back and reading anytime soon?
I don't know about readings, but I will be back this summer because I'm going to be teaching a Scribes class at Hugo House with Imani Sims, which I'm really excited about, but I don't have any readings or anything lined up.
Was there anything that you've been thinking about in these last few weeks as a Seattleite?
I guess what I would say is that I'm going to really miss Seattle. I think that's apparent from what I've been saying. But I also am excited to begin a new chapter of my life with my person in a different place where we can be together all the time.
Seattle has been a real home for me. I will be really sad to leave it but I've built solid relationships with people and with this city that I feel like I could come back and be welcome again. I guess I just want to say thank you.
When we announced that we’d like to interview authors who are leaving town for our Exit Interview feature, the most-suggested writer was Kelly Davio, a poet, columnist for The Butter, and co-publisher and poetry editor at the Tahoma Literary Review. The e-mails we received were dripping with sadness about Davio’s departure; the word “irreplaceable” came up. Davio’s debut poetry collection, Burn This House was publshed by Red Hen Press in 2013.
Where are you going, and when and, if I may be so bold, why?
I’m gearing up for one of the bigger moves of my life: I’m headed to London, England. My husband is in tech, and his company has made him director of a group that works primarily out of its London office. It’s hard to say goodbye to literary Seattle, but I’m awfully proud of my husband and this big opportunity for him, so off I go. If I can get all my paperwork in order, that is. Trying to collect all the right papers, stamps, and certifications feels a little bit like waiting for a ruling in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, if I may be allowed a cheesy Bleak House reference.
We encourage as many Bleak House references as possible around here. When do you leave?
If I can get all of the moving parts of this relocation to align, I should be gone by early October. Somehow, in this remaining month-or-so, I need to sell a house and find a new apartment overseas. Yet somehow all I want to do is work on my novel revisions. Maybe I'm in denial!
How would you describe Seattle's literary culture?
I’d say the community here is pocketed. And I mean that in a good way — there are wonderful little pockets of literary community all over the city and the larger area, and no matter what neighborhood you live in or what kind of literature you like to read or write, there’s a gathering and a community for you. Over the years, I’ve thought, “okay, now I have a handle on literary Seattle.” Then I'd immediately be proven wrong when I’d learn about an expo like APRILFest, or about events like Poets in the Park out in Redmond, or about cool new presses like Two Sylvias, or about great literary organizations like Old Growth Northwest. There’s always something new percolating here, and I’ve loved discovering all of these diverse and thriving literary communities over the past decade.
Did you feel supported in Seattle?
Absolutely. Part of that comes from having attended Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, which I firmly believe to be the friendliest and most supportive MFA program in the world. Part of it's also the fact that literary folks in Seattle are unusually giving of their time, their knowledge, and their professional support. Every time I’ve needed help with setting up a reading or getting in touch with a conference organizer, a fellow poet or writer has been gracious enough to help me out. I’ve tried to do the same for others in turn. I think Seattle writers understand that the literary world is an ecosystem, and that when we all work to better that ecosystem, we create a better place for all of us to thrive.
In your opinion, what could Seattle literary culture do better?
We could — and I include myself in this — put our butts in chairs with greater regularity. Being an attendee at a reading series, a book launch, or a workshop is an important way that any one of us can support other writers. Of course, it’s hard when you don’t get off work until six or so to make it halfway across the city to attend a reading at seven, especially when traffic is grueling and busses are late and it’s raining, and, and, and. Yet at the same time, it’s awfully disheartening for authors to put on events that draw, say, two people total.
When a good friend of mine released her first book a couple of years back, she had a big, well publicized event here in Seattle, and just one guy showed up. The guy wandered in as she read to an empty room, he ate a muffin in what sounded like an arrestingly messy way, and then he wandered back out. That, folks, is a bad scene.
And where the heck was I? I don’t remember. I will always feel terrible about not showing up and putting my behind in a chair to listen to her and support her.
Are there any aspects of literary Seattle that you'll especially miss?
I’ll really miss Open Books, Elliott Bay Books, and Hugo House. Those places — both as physical locations and as evolving communities — have been at the center of my experience of Seattle as a literary city, and I’ll miss being able to pop by anytime I want.
I’ll also miss being close to home base as I work on Tahoma Literary Review; I’ll continue as poetry editor and co-publisher, but it will be a bummer not to be able to attend contributor readings and launch events here at home.
Do you have any readings or public events between now and when you go?
I do! I'm happy to say that I'll be reading one last time at Lit Fix on September 23, 7pm at the Rendezvous. I'll be reading with Kevin Maloney, Matthew Simmons, and Jeanine Walker. All the proceeds from the event will benefit Literacy Source, which does wonderful work here in our community.
Do you have any parting words, advice, or wishes for Seattle's literary scene?
Be good to each other. Remember that there’s room in literature for all of us, and we’re at our best when we help — not crowd — each other out.
For many years if you attended a reading in Seattle, you'd have a pretty good chance of running into Kate Lebo there. The author of Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour, and Butter and A Commonplace Book of Pie, Lebo is a poet and an essayist who's read on pretty much every stage in Seattle. But unlike a lot of writers who only show up when they're on the bill, she's always been a full participant in Seattle's literary scene, too. She goes to readings as an audience member and participates happily in group readings and festivals and the daily writing life of the city; all of which is a long way around saying that she always seemed like a lifer. So I was shocked when I heard that she'd moved out of town. Lebo was kind enough to agree to a conversation about why she left.
Where are you now? What are you doing?
I live in Spokane, Washington, but I moved there about six months ago. Before that, I was living in Vancouver Washington for two years. I did this kind of French exit from Seattle when my rent went up like crazy in the middle of a book project. I set up house in my parents house — actually my childhood bedroom — and set up a bunch of house gigs and tours and did things to try to only be home about half the time.
Now that I have my own great adult home in Spokane, I’m still touring about half the time. I’ve been trying to balance freelance work — teaching creative writing and writing things and teaching pie and doing events for the two cookbooks — that translate to paying my rent and getting to be free. I decided not to go the academic route and I decided not to go the Amazon route, but it’s left me vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a freelance life, which I’m sure you know is feast or famine. And Seattle became a place for me where the famines became too deep and the rents and the cost of living were too high for me to live there.
I didn’t want to go, because [Seattle is] where I came of age, and I’ve got such deep personal and professional and artistic ties there. I’m trying to keep them by appearing like I didn’t leave, like not telling people where, exactly, I am at any given time and just being in town a lot.
Why did you choose Spokane?
I fell in love and he works for Eastern [Washington University]. So it was a good choice for my personal life. And when I was looking at Spokane, I realized I can get a really cute apartment for exactly half what my rent was in Ballard, which is the last place I lived in Seattle. The cost of living is cheap. It feels a lot like Bellingham to me; I went to college in Bellingham, which is why I’m making that comparison.
People value the arts in Spokane, and they’re super-hungry for more, but they don’t get as many touring acts coming through as they do in Seattle. There’s not as much money here. There’s not nearly as much money as there is in Seattle and Portland. So that means it’s easy to live, in that I can be a freelancer, I can be an artist, and I can live like a real adult. It’s also a more emergent place where there’s less money being passed around for the creative things that you’re doing, and I think there’s a little more work to do in educating people that it’s valuable to spend your money on really good food, that it’s valuable to spend your money on art.
What I’m discovering is that because there’s less money there’s a lot of hunger and a lot of openness. It’s the kind of place where you can say “I want to do this thing,” and then you can go do it and then everyone shows up and they’re really excited that you’re there. It’s really cool how easy it is to make something happen.
What’s also funny to me was when I told people in Seattle I was going to Spokane, the responses were kind of formulaic: "why would you go there? I’ve been there and there’s nothing there." Most of the people who told me that hadn’t been there in ten years.
And then the other thing people said was, “maybe you can go start an art scene there.” Which was hilarious because they had this kind of pioneering attitude, assuming there’s nothing there already. There’s been a thriving art scene [in Spokane] for a while. Jess Walter’s there. There’s tons of writers: Kris Dinnison, Sharma Shields, Tod Marshall, Sam Ligon (my partner). There are three universities. WSU is building a medical school there.
It’s funny to me that it is a place that west-siders assume is backward and rural and small. It’s bigger than Tacoma, it’s educated. There’s a certain kind of east-west polarity that’s like US vs. Canada or Australia vs. New Zealand. The big dog has to have an underdog to reinforce their image of themselves, and what that creates is an ignorant assumption about a place that is actually pretty cool.
How would you describe Seattle’s literary culture?
I knew you were going to ask that question, and I don’t have a good quick answer. I moved to Seattle when I was 22 years old from Bellingham, and I knew that if I went to Hugo House, I would find my people. I’d find a place that would not only give me an education, but it would give me a community and an identity. I wanted that, I needed that, and I found that. That is a resource that is rare among cities. I owe a lot to it.
And what I saw over my decade in the city was a lot of different ways to participate — people feeling like outsiders and finding a way to create their own way to participate. I saw a lot of different people say, ”the place where I would be most excited to be a writer is missing, so I’m going to go make it.”
When you get to a smaller town, there’s a weekend where everything is happening and then there’s three weeks where nothing is happening, whereas there’s always something happening in Seattle. And I actually got to a place where I needed to hide from all the brilliant things going on [in Seattle] so I could do my work and be well and not suffer from burnouts constantly. So in some ways it’s been incredibly great to leave and be able to return on my own terms, in my car, for pleasure and business.
I think in Seattle when it doesn’t feel like there’s room for you, people elbow in and make room, and I like that and I admire it. I think there’s a competitive feeling and it’s used by a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.
Have you done that in Spokane? Did you try the Seattle approach and how was it received, if so?
I’ve been wary about trying a Seattle approach, which I would interpret to be showing up and saying, “hey I know all these cool writers you’ve never heard of so let me bring them in from the west side.” I’ve really been careful about not being a jerk like that. I hope.
It’s easier for me to imagine taking risks with business, with artistic ventures, in Spokane than it was in Seattle. I find that when I’m in a competitive environment I prefer to absorb and participate but not to lead. In Spokane, there’s more room in a way that for me personally feels open to leading and creating.
For example, I’m now teaming up with a sommelier and restaurant owner and a beloved bartender in Spokane to do a series of dinners with artists in unlikely locations around the inland Northwest. We’re going to have Alexandra Teague at our first one. It’s going to be awesome. And I wouldn’t imagine doing that in Seattle; not because I couldn’t — there’s brilliant cooks everywhere and there’s brilliant writers everywhere —but just because there’s already so much happening that it didn’t seem like whatever I would come up with in that way was really needed.
Did you feel supported in Seattle?
There’s two versions of that answer. One is unequivocally, deeply, yes. I loved working at Hugo House and finding a helping role that also educated me, about what it was to be in an artistic community, all the different ways to be an artist. One of the reasons I didn’t pursue an academic career was after Hugo House, it was just clear to me that there are so many ways to do it. It made it clear that I could go teach pie classes and do that instead of trying to go get a fancy fellowship.
A woman I knew through Hugo House who works for Amazon very kindly tried to recruit me when I graduated from UW. I didn’t take that job because it seemed to be cross-purposes to writing books, which I what I wanted to do. Saying no is a privilege, but it also leaves me vulnerable to the people who say yes. That’s the person who was able to rent my apartment when the rent went up by 50 percent six months later. I think about that choice. It was the right choice.
I don’t know if it’s the right word, but I felt disenfranchised — living in a city for that long and looking around and just knowing that I’m never going to own a piece of this place. With what I want to do, I will always be borrowing space, and that makes me vulnerable. Even though I participated in the cultural life of the city, and contributed for years, what I needed to succeed was participation in the financial life.
And so in that way, no. Not supportive. I don’t have a good answer for what the city is supposed to do about that. I was just reading an article in the New York Times about the Seattle Art Fair and how it happened and one of the reasons it happened is because the city is getting richer faster than anywhere else in the country.
It’s not your particular value as a person that’s going to bring you success, it’s the amount of resources that are available. I’m taking this course on the history of food right now and what you see over and over is that a population explodes and a people become complex not because they’re such a good people but because they’re geographically in a place that gives them more resources that allow them to grow. Seattle’s dealing with an embarrassment of riches.
Where are we going to live, so that we can make art in the city and have lives that are reasonable, that we have reasonable expectations for our lives, have some comfort? Can we make the choice to be artists and not live in abject poverty? I know being an artist isn’t going to be as comfortable as working at Amazon, but for me it was such a clear thing.
I chose to be an artist, I had to leave the city. There’s not a reasonable way for me to make a living and pay my way in Seattle. I needed to go to a smaller place.
[Before I left,] I was approached by the affordable housing association in Seattle and they had some options, but they not reasonable for me. They were still fifty percent more than what I’d been paying. I’m frustrated with the idea that artist housing is going to solve the problem of livable places for artists to live. It’s just another thing for us to compete for. A different person would respond differently to that, and elbow to the front of the line, but my response is just to leave.
Would you recommend Seattle to another writer? Say a young writer from Spokane approached you and told you they were thinking about moving to Seattle. What would you say?
Oh, yeah. You should leave wherever you’re from, for a little while, anyway.
Part of my decision is that I’m in my early thirties and I want to live my life differently than I did in my twenties. I’m not as good at living poor and living hard as I used to be.
I would also give people the advice to look to unlikely places in Washington and Oregon for really cool artistic communities that you wouldn’t expect to be there. I’ve been doing a ton of travel around Washington state. Even in Wenatchee — holy crap, talk about a place I had really dumb assumptions about — they have great restaurants and shops and a great artisan scene there. I’m not saying “move to Wenatchee,” but I’m saying keep your eyes peeled for places that have the resources and the people to help you get the things you want.