At the end of June, Hugo House announced that they had hired Rob Arnold to fill the events director position previously held by novelist Peter Mountford. The press release cited Arnold's impressive resumé — he "has held key positions at Ploughshares, Beacon Press, Fence Books, the National Poetry Series, PEN New England and, most recently, at the literary agency Aevitas Creative Management in Boston, Massachusetts" — and his education as a poetry undergrad at the University of Washington.
Over the phone, Arnold sounds elated about his new job — and, if anything, he seems even more excited about coming back to Seattle after many years on the east coast. Arnold recalls coming to the House back when it first started in the late 1990s. "I really gravitated toward [Hugo House's] sense of community," he explains.
"I've been aware of Hugo House for a long time," Arnold says, and as he's established a literary life on the east coast, "I've been watching the House from afar. Peter [Mountford,] especially, has really brought its event series into national prominence. When he announced that he was leaving, it seemed like a really good opportunity to come back."
Arnold has roots in Seattle, and returning to its peculiar Northwestern rhythms was easy and enjoyable for him. "I keep joking with my east coast friends when they ask me how Seattle is. I say 'it's relentlessly pleasant.'"
It helps that Arnold is intimately familiar with the Northwestern tradition of poetry. At UW, he explains, "my first very first workshop was with Rick Kenney." he says that experience "really opened my brain in the best possible way, and so I studied with him a lot. I was a Rick Kenney acolyte." He also learned from Linda Bierds and Robert McNamara.
I ask Arnold if he can think of any literary events he's attended that especially stood out as something he'd like to emulate at the Hugo House. "Any time Margaret Atwood is in a room, it's going to be remarkable," he says. "But I remember seeing Margaret Atwood at the Boston Book Festival interviewed by Kelly Link." Link at first seemed like she might feel "dwarfed" by Atwood's brilliance, Arnold says, but "Atwood was so incredible and so generous and just fiercely intelligent, and it was one of the most riveting experiences."
Arnold will be putting together the very first events in Hugo House's brand-new home. "Part of my role, of course, is to curate to the new space, but so much of what Hugo House has been doing already has been so vital and so compelling to the community that following the guidance of my predecessors is going to be something that I keep in mind a lot."
"We do have this amazing new theater space that's going to be really thrilling," Arnold says. "It will seat 150 and then they'll have expanded seating available for more."
But even Arnold doesn't know what the events slate will look like a year from now. "I'm still getting to know the space and I imagine that once I get to know all the different spaces we have to work with, I'll be booking different kinds of events to occupy different parts of the space in the building."
You can expect some popular House reading series to continue, including the themed Literary Series and the craft conversations. Arnold is excited about incorporating more genre authors into the series, including a craft talk from mystery author Elizabeth George. "I'm looking at erasing some of the boundaries that have existed a little bit too long between literary and genre. I think those boundaries are blending a little bit now, particularly in the post-Harry-Potter age when people feel less divided about genre."
What other sneak previews can Arnold provide? "Lauren Groff will be taking part in our fall series. That's super exciting for me. And the poet Natalie Diaz is going to be doing a really amazing event for us on the Edward Curtis legacy. That's going to be really interesting."
Hugo House, he says, is "a community center, and we're working with a lot of other literary organizations — hosting events for them, working with them in partnership — and so we're not just a resource for writers, but a resource for writing and literary arts in general in the city, like a portal to the larger literary world."
One of Arnold's central missions is to strengthen the House's "commitment to equity — racial equity, economic equity — and reaching audiences that sometimes the literary community can forget about." It's his job, maybe most importantly of all, to open the House to people who don't even know they're welcome there yet.
S/o to @mosslitmag poets @troyosaki, @JasleenaGrewal, & @richsssmith in conversation about poetry/politics/regionalism with @paulconstant at this vol. 3 realease party. These people are so dope and so smart. Grateful for their voices 🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/J8MjwgQAO2— Dujie Tahat (@DujieTahat) June 14, 2018
Last month, I interviewed three poets as part of the launch party for the third issue of the Northwest literary magazine Moss. Seattle poet (and Stranger books and theater editor) Rich Smith had a lot of smart things to say about the political moment in poetry, but I was especially impressed with the two younger poets on the bill — Troy Osaki and Jasleena Grewal. Grewal is a brand-new poet who has only just started attending readings, and Osaki is a slam champion who is making the move into a more literary sphere. The stories of personal transformation through poetry that they shared with the audience felt inspirational.
"I went to law school," Osaki told me, because "I wanted to learn a skill to serve people in a tangible way." But he said "law can be really limiting," in that so much of it holds things "in place" so they "aren't necessarily transforming anything."
"But with art and poetry we can imagine new things, new ways of living, new worlds," Osaki argued. And so in this time when Donald Trump has ratcheted up political tension, everything is "really intense," and so many people are feeling powerless, they're turning to poetry.
"A lot of folks are looking for answers and new ways of thinking," Osaki said, "and they're turning to art to kind of grab onto those new worlds and try to expand our view of what could be. Intense times equals intense poetry."
I asked Grewal how she went from being an entirely inexperienced, unpublished poet to reading at a literary magazine launch party in less than a year. Her first published work appeared in former Washington state poet laureate Tod Marshall's anthology of local poets, WA 129. From there, she started reading with "my friends who are writers, and then I started submitting."
Grewal's theory is "I just go to whatever I'm invited to and wherever my friends are reading." She shows up to support her friends, "and then I'm talking to people and meeting people."
I asked these two poets at the beginning of their careers who they'd highlight if they were asked to choose the poets for the next issue of Moss. "When I think about a quintessential Northwest poet, I think about Sierra Nelson," Grewal said. "I studied poetry at Friday Harbor for awhile and she was one of the mentors and I learned a lot from her."
Osaki cited another Moss poet, Azura Tyabji, as someone he wanted to highlight. "She just became the Seattle Youth Poet Laureate a few weeks ago," he said. "She's incredible. And I think just in general, turning to young poets who are writing really awesome stuff around the city and greater Seattle" is important in times like these.
Eleanor Goodman started to learn Chinese when she was "four or five," she says. A family friend spoke to her in Chinese, and she absorbed the language through the "amazing stories" she'd hear as a child. "I really wanted to see it all for myself," she says over the phone. Though it wasn't her major, she studied Chinese in college and soon after "I moved to Shanghai thinking I knew a lot more language than I did."
Goodman writes poetry in English, and she says her life as a poet "deeply informs my translations." She firmly believes that "if you want to translate poetry you should have at least the potential to be a poet in your native tongue. It's the same skill set."
When she prepares to translate a poem into English, Goodman tries first and foremost to preserve the structure of the poem. "As a translator, I already feel really beholden to the structure of the poem, including delineation," she says. From there, she scours every word and phrase in the poem for definitions and context. "Even if the poem looks very simple, I look up every single character," she says. Goodman surrounds herself with Chinese-to-English dictionaries, and apps, and online dictionaries. "I kind of get lost, being a word nerd," she admits.
"Every time I translate a poem, I learn something new," Goodman says. "That's really not an exaggeration. I'll encounter something that interests me — a word or character that I don't know, a word or phrase that I don't understand."
"I'm very fortunate to be working in this particular tiny field," Goodman says. She translates a lot of prose, and the demand for Chinese-to-English translation is very high. But she says "the translation of contemporary Chinese poetry really is a field of about seven people who are working very seriously."
The act of translation has taught Goodman a great deal about writing poetry. In Chinese poetry, she says, "the second line will often recast the first line entirely," changing the meaning of the line (often multiple times) as the reader makes her way through a poem. Additionally, she says, "I used to be really attached to punctuation, and now that's something that's not very obligatory to me."
Goodman translates the work of our June Poet in Residence, Natalia Chan (who publishes under the pseudonym Lok Fung.) So what is it about Fung's work that appeals to Goodman as a translator? Goodman says Fung is "a really interesting poet. She is not just a poet but also a serious thinker about cultural studies, cultural issues, pop culture, the influence of high literature and also popular literature and music on a population."
"She's also very feminist in a very interesting way," Goodman says. "A lot of her poems are love poems about failed love. She writes about makeup, about getting her hair done, about fashion." Fung, she argues, focuses on these "quintessentially girly or feminine or seemingly frivolous sort of things" and uses them to discuss "how women function in society and how women think and feel and reflect on their own lives."
Lok Fung's book of poetry, Days When I Hide My Corpse in a Cardboard Box, will be published by Zephyr Press later this year. Even over the phone, it's clear that Goodman is audibly proud to be her translator. Lok Fung, she says, is "important not just in the Hong Kong poetry scene but also in the wider sense of poetry."
If I were in charge, Ellen Forney would be Seattle's Cartoonist Laureate — her writing and art would be all over the city's signs and materials, and would represent the city to the rest of the world. Just as Seattle is so beautiful that it's hard to remember sometimes how complex and difficult it can be to live here, there's something so inviting and approachable to Forney's art that it's almost impossible for a casual reader to recognize how much actual work goes into every illustration or page of comics that she does.
Forney's first full-length narrative, Marbles, was an account of what it meant to come of age as a bipolar cartoonist. Her new book, Rock Steady, is a how-to guide that serves as a companion piece to her memoir. Forney explains how she found stability and an acceptable level of normalcy as an artist, and she provides strategies for audiences to cope with their own bipolar traits or other mental disorders. We talked last week, the day after Forney returned from a reading tour for Rock Steady.
Okay, so you read my review. Do you want to talk about that? I know I spent a lot of time talking about how a lot of Rock Steady wasn't actually comics.
I knew right off the bat it was going to be difficult to shelve. The language of words and pictures is really broad, you know? And I generally think of comics as a narrative medium, and there are a lot of markers that we're accustomed to — panels and the other symbols, like word balloons.
But primarily the concern is they're narratives. That is my definition of "comics." I certainly wouldn't consider Rock Steady a graphic novel. There are some comics within it, but I would not argue that most of it would go into the realm of comics.
When I work, I like to take a look at all of the subject matter, all the information that I have to reference, and let that dictate the form in order to communicate it best. If I were to try to put [Rock Steady] into panels and make it more of a story — sculpt it as a story — the information would have gotten kind of diluted.
I would say that it definitely landed on the word end, in that spectrum of words and pictures.
When [Forney's partner] Jake and I travel, we keep a travel journal. And it's a lot like that. It's a lot of blocks of text. There are some full pages of text, with maybe an illustration or two. It's handwritten, which is an important part of it to me.
When we're talking about big blocks of text, it's handwritten, so that communicates information differently from just a text.
I felt like I needed to use this range in order to tell these different things. The specificity of language is important to me. There are some things that really work better in words, that wind up being cumbersome if you try to do them in pictures or in words and pictures.
For example, any cartoonist that has tried to do a comic of a recipe has run into this, because it's very specific information, and to have that information sprinkled around in a comic makes it cumbersome to use. It's difficult to use as a reader, if you really want to cook from it.
And I reminded myself a lot as I was doing Rock Steady that communicating the information was my priority — that I didn't need to make it pretty if it wasn't coming out pretty.
One long stretch of text is in the chapter about substances, in dealing with partaking. I really wanted to communicate to people who were wrestling with issues around substances.
This was something that I talked about in Marbles, — about dealing with smoking pot, and my whole identity around being a pot smoker. I didn't want to depict anything too specific. I generally say that words are explicit, and pictures give more of an abstract feel, or a mood. Obviously that's a big generalization, because you can do a whole story in just pictures.
But in something like substances, there were ways that I could be more general just using words — where if I was actually depicting someone smoking pot, then somebody who was having an issue with alcohol might not really relate to that. And I didn't want to make it funny. I really wanted to be really careful.
It's also a really controversial take on substances. I don't mean to dwell on the substances part too much, but I took a lot of time and revisions and editing, and I worked with addiction psychiatrists on that part.
Having that be in mostly text allowed me to be really explicit, and it also allowed me to sidestep drawing someone using or partaking. That's an example of a place that I decided that I was going to let it be wordy, that the information would dictate the form. And even though that was about as far from comics as I would get, I had to be okay with that, and trust that enough readers would be able to hang with that.
Anyway. So that was my lengthy response to a concern that you brought up, that was something that I had thought about. Which is, it's not a comic. It's not a narrative from beginning to end like Marbles. But the kind of information that I wanted to communicate, and the amount of information that I wanted to communicate, wasn't going to fit into a narrative structure. I wasn't going to be able to fold all of that into a longer narrative.
And Marbles Part Two doesn't have much of a story arc. You know, I stayed stable.
And that's not much of a plot, yeah. I felt bad that I spent so much time on whether or not Rock Steady was a comic in my review, but I do think that was something that I thought that readers would want to know, right? But at the same time, I was concerned I was doing some sort of bro-y, gatekeeping sort of thing? Because I'm not that interested in whether it's comics or whether it's not comics. It's more like, does it work?
I think that those points are really important. I would say that probably a good block of people who are gonna pick up Rock Steady are familiar with Marbles and not the rest of my work. It has a lot of the trappings of a comic, and it doesn't read like a comic. I knew that Rock Steady would run into that — if you see it on the table in bookstore, what it is isn't necessarily clear right away.
And I know that that's a thing. I remember an art teacher talking about your expectations, like if you have a glass of brown liquid in front of you and you think it's apple juice, and you sip it and it's actually bourbon, you're gonna spit it out. And so that I know there are a lot of readers that are gonna have to kind of readjust, like, 'Oh, it's not a narrative. Oh, it's not Marbles Part 2.' It's a companion book. It's a how-to book. It's a manual that uses the language of words and pictures in a number of different ways, I guess.
But there's graphic elements that go into even the pages that are all text, right? I mean, that's not your handwriting, right? That's not how you write a shopping list.
The writing on the page is not just you dashing something off. You're actually thinking about how the words go on the page, right?
And there's design to that as well. And that's something that I don't think I got across in my review. There's still cartooning even if there's not a drawing on the page. You are still cartooning, right?
Well, because there are so many different skills and techniques that go into doing a page. And I rarely use panels, I rarely use a grid. So really, every page is sculpted from what the information is.
And ideally, it reads easy enough. That's the idea. That's my aim — that it reads easily enough that you think, 'Of course it's that way. Of course that's how it's written. Of course that's how it's laid out.' My work is meant to come across as really spontaneous — its kind of friendly, welcoming quality, is because of a certain sense of ease.
Yeah. There's a sense of ease and there's always a sense of approachability.
But it is very designed. It is very designed, and redesigned, and tweaked, for sure. And it gets hidden. Every now and then somebody will say something about how effortless [my work] is, rather than how effortless it seems. I'll just go ahead and take that as a compliment.
It's interesting you were talking about the substances, because I don't know if you could draw somebody doing drugs in the way that wouldn't feel, on some level, inviting. Because your art is very approachable, and even if you draw something that's supposed to be bad, there's a level of fun and appeal that comes across to the reader. So, you definitely have a level of responsibility there.
Yeah. It was a really tricky one. I didn't want to draw something that was cute. I drew a little tiny bit of cute in the very beginning so that it kind of eased your way in, with two beer bottle characters.
In this book, you talk about the importance of stability. And that is something that a lot of people who I have interviewed would say is not important or is antithetical to art. Some people — and I'm not in this category, but a lot of people are — think that art has to be spontaneous and uncontained and unstable. And so I was wondering if you've gotten any pushback on your call for stability in art.
I would say that, at least from the people who I hear from, there is a lot more relief that it's possible to be creative and be stable. It's a great, big fear that stability is gonna mean losing a certain spontaneity or passion or creativity. And my saying that it's possible to be stable just kind of gives a flicker of hope. I'd say that that's the primary reaction that I've gotten.
And one way to think about that that doesn't feel restrictive is keeping a regular rhythm. Think of Led Zeppelin. If you have a really solid rhythm section, then you can have guitar solos, you can go out into creativity and innovation, and it's still grounded and you're going to come back to this rhythm that keeps everything together.
And so if you think about your daily rhythm that way, then you can go off and do all sorts of things. I mean, an example would be like, "I want to go to the mountaintop for that crazy artist week-long residency." Great. Make sure you get enough sleep. Make sure you're eating. You know, take care of certain things in your routine and you can do your guitar solos.
Speaking of changing rhythms, you've been on a book tour. I usually talk to people before they go on tour, so this is a nice change of pace. What was the tour like?
It was great. It was really fun.
What was the response to the book like on the tour?
I mean, I am back as of yesterday. I have a little processing to do.
People seem to be getting the point — that this book is coming from a point of view of someone who's had this experience and has an investment in these practices and ways of thinking. Most of the books [in this genre] are by therapists or doctors, and this information is really different, coming from me.
Also, I've gotten people really relating to things that are really important to me, that were really important to me to include, like messing up. It's okay to mess up, most of the time — it'll be okay or it'll be fixable.
It was really embarrassing when I put in the book how I accidentally took Vitamin D instead of my mood stabilizer, Lamictal, for three days. That's a bad mistake, and for me, it was overwhelmingly embarrassing. But I dealt with it. I looked up information on the internet, realized that actually I was kind of in danger territory, called my doctor, figured out what we needed to do, and learned my lesson, and went on. I don't make that mistake anymore.
That's a big part of taking care of ourselves: You're gonna mess up. What are you gonna do then? I think it seems so far like people are kind of getting that.
You might not want to hear this question so close to publishing a book, but I'm sure that my readers would like to know. What are you working on next?
No, that's okay. The thing that I'm toying with now is a book that covers a lot of the same aim as Rock Steady, except for teens. When I was first starting to do Marbles, a friend of mine, who is a high-school English teacher, said, "please make this available for teens, because they just need it so much."
It's such a huge issue in schools: in your teens is really when a lot of the symptoms start developing and coming out, and diagnoses are kind of starting to come into play, and a lot of kids are getting on medications. It's a really confusing time, and there are a lot of issues in the air that aren't clear.
With Marbles, I had to tell the story how I had to tell the story. It turns out there was too much drugs and sex for it to get into high school. Not that plenty of teens didn't read it, and I've heard from plenty of teens, but it couldn't be officially taught. Well, I mean, it has — I talked to a high-school class — but rarely.
Yeah, you had to Judy Blume it.
Yeah. When I was starting Rock Steady, that was one of my aims, that it be available to teens. And I had a three-hour talk on the phone with a high-school psychologist/counselor, and I wound up realizing that I wasn't gonna be able to do that. There are some issues that are just way too different. Most high-schoolers are still on their parents' insurance, so dealing with finding their own health issues is different. Agency, just in general is a big issue. They just don't have the kinds of freedoms that adults who are taking care of themselves do.
I have mixed feelings about medication in general, and I hope that that is very clear in Rock Steady, that I don't preach meds. I don't think that they are necessary for everybody. I don't think that they're necessary for the long-term for everybody. I think that there's a lot of over-diagnosing and over-medicating now. And teens, so many of them are on meds now. Their frontal lobes are still developing, and it feels like a really even more complicated piece of an already complicated issue that I would wanna deal with differently.
And there are a lot of other issues that are different, like questioning the diagnosis. It's really different for a teen to be like, 'Mom, Dad, Doctor, I'm not sure about this diagnosis that you've given me.' It's a big deal, and to have that in a book, it'll be really tricky.
I decided, "Okay, this isn't something that I'm gonna be able to do with Rock Steady. That's a separate project," and so that's what I'm thinking about now. That's the long answer.
I'm just trying to wrap my head around how I'm going to do that, which groups of teens I'll turn to, if it should have fictional elements. Should there be more narrative elements? I don't know. I feel like I am now kind of opening it up, more, to different possibilities. 'Cause it's gonna be tricky.
Cat Rambo is a mainstay of Seattle science fiction scene: she attends readings, she supports the community through teaching, and she represents the city as an acclaimed novelist and short story author.
Last week, Rambo announced a new project through Kickstarter: If This Goes On, an anthology that examines what might happen a generation or so into the future if the current political climate continues as it has been. Most everyone reading this has read a headline about the Trump administration over the last year and a half and wondered to themselves, “are we going to be okay?” If This Goes On attempts to answer that question.
Rambo has collected stories from 30 new and established sci-fi authors, including Seattle author (and Seattle Review of Books contributor) Nisi Shawl. Backers will help fund the publication of the book, and they will receive copies before If This Goes On is available in stores. At the time of this writing, the Kickstarter is more than halfway to its goal; if you’d like to contribute and get an e-book, paperback, or special hardback edition of the book, you can just click these words. Rambo emailed with me late last week about the project, the pains and pleasures of editing, and all the other projects she’s currently working on.
How did this project come together? Was it your idea, or were you brought on later?
This project was the result of talking with publisher Colin Coyle of Parvus Press, who I had met through mutual volunteer work with the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) in the weeks after the 2016 elections. We both felt that what we saw happening in America — the normalizing of hatred, the jettisoning of truth, and the corruption of so many basic values — was something that writers had to address. That in an era where questions of responsibility, humanity, and basic ethics are being raised on a daily - sometimes it seems like hourly - basis, we agreed that writers had to speak out, using the genre most adapted to predicting the future, speculative fiction.
We did a mix of half solicited stories and half open call, because it’s important to me that projects like this be open to newer writers. As a result we got some dynamite pieces from both established writers and some names that I think will be coming up over and over again in years to come. Some of the futures explored in the book are purely metaphorical, while others seem entirely too possible. I was pleased with the range of stories turned in, and the fact that there were so many hopeful ones.
These are some very impressive authors — as an editor, is it more difficult to edit people you admire? And every editor/writer relationship is different—it seems like it would be incredibly difficult to edit 30 different contributors, because you’d have to learn 30 different ways to edit a text. Would you say that’s true, or am I just a bad editor?
Yes! One does not want to offend -- or worse yet, misunderstand -- the writing of someone whose work you love. But to me the job of an editor is to make the story more so, to figure out how, in the words of the immortal Spinal Tap, one turns the good parts up to 11 while smoothing any roughnesses. I’ve just finished up those edits, and it’s impressed me again with what a solid book this is.
Is there anything you’d say to someone who loves these authors and wants to support the book but is feeling incredibly burnt out about current events?
Well, for one, I’m right there with everyone else in feeling a little burned out by the onslaught. But, as I said, there’s some messages of hope there, expressions of the innate goodness many of us (myself included) believe human beings are capable of. Moreover, the book has a sense of community, of knowing others are there with you in going ‘woah, wait a minute, things have gone beyond the pale.’
And if you don’t want to read it, buy it as a gift for a friend! The Kickstarter’s got some nifty levels to it if you want to show solidarity with the project.
For me as a reader, it was hard, even impossible, to read fiction the year after Trump became president. Some of it had to do, I think, that I was dealing with novels that were written before the supposedly unthinkable happened, so they felt weirdly out-of-date, even if they were brand new. As a writer, did you have to rethink the way you approached fiction?
I think I had a few months where I could not write near future SF at all. On a purely practical level, some sections of the possible future got closed off, and events skewed so wackily that I, along with other people, kept waking up with the sense we’d wandered into a badly written TV show that was refusing to end. I worked on my fantasy novel, Hearts of Tabat, the one that just came out, in part because it’s an attempt to talk about how oppression works.
Teaching, strangely enough, was also comforting because it reinforced and built my awareness of some of the fierce young activists getting stirred up by events.
You’re typically what I’d describe as a prolific author, but this year seems especially big for you—you only just had a launch party for the second book in your Tabat Quartet. Are you working harder than ever, or have publication dates just aligned like some remarkable multi-planet eclipse? Do you have any more publications on the horizon?
I think that’s partially a result of the way publishing works and the fact that I’m a hybrid author doing both traditional and indie publishing. Hearts of Tabat is out through Wordfire Press, run by Kevin J. Anderson (who actually edited the book) while I’ve got a nonfiction book about writing, Moving From Idea to Draft, that just came out this week, and am re-issuing two collections this year. Right now I’m working on Exiles of Tabat, the third fantasy novel, with my target of a first draft by summer’s end in sight and a release date of next May, barring disaster and/or the release of a videogame with as much allure as Skyrim held for me.
At the same time - yeah, I’m reasonably prolific, striving a la Stephen King for 2,000 words a day, mainly because I’m pragmatic and know that if I’m not writing, stuff’s not getting published. I’m lucky enough not to have a day job but the boss I’ve ended up working for is tougher than any other employer I’ve ever had. Still, I’m blessed in that I can take on some projects like this one, which is very much a work of passion and love.
Susan Rich’s poems thrum with a rhythm all their own. Read any of our May Poet in Residence’s poems and you’ll likely be absorbed in the rhythm of the thing — dense internal rhythms, tricky beats in single lines, sentences that shouldn’t exist but somehow manage to thrive.
I don’t know, for instance, how Rich makes a line like “we accordioned together vaudeville-style” work. But in “Self Portrait with Abortion and Bee Sting,” it not only scans but it feels essential — like the only words that could logically fit there. Her poems are full of those impossible lines — if I ever wrote something as beautiful about an earthworm as “Pink hermaphrodite of the jiggling zither,” I would probably retire in triumph.
“Rhythm is super-important to me,” Rich confirms over the phone, but she sounds unsure about exactly why it takes on such an importance for her. “I studied scansion. On a good day, I can tell you iambic pentameter from iambic hexameter.”
But she’s not driven solely by beats. When writing a poem, Rich says, “sound is important, and the playfulness of language is paramount.” She calls herself “very interested in the sounds of vowels and the sounds of certain consonants,” and she has lately been admiring the poems of Frank Gaspar, saying that from the beginning of his book Late Rapturous, “it was clear there was a lot of sounds” packed inside. “The ‘o’ was everywhere,” she says.
“I started writing when I was young,” Rich says. “I loved reading and writing, all through elementary school.” But when she attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, she says, calamity struck in the form of “old white poets who went out of their way to tell me I wasn’t a poet.” Rich still sounds offended when she thinks of those men, who she describes as “pretty famous poets.” Because of their criticism, she didn’t write poetry for a decade. Eventually, after a stint in Niger through the Peace Corps, Rich took up painting – mostly “moldy oranges and grapefruits and shimmery shiny fruits” — and then returned to poetry.
More than just a writer and a teacher of poetry, Rich is a voracious reader of poetry, too. “I try to read everything. There’s amazing poets coming out all time,” she says, and she seems to fall in love frequently. She’s breathless when she talks about the relentless rhyming in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” for instance. “That ‘master’ and ‘disaster,’” she says, “wouldn’t hit you on the head when you read it a second or third time,” but she calls it “the rhyme that keeps coming." Other poets she admires include Adrienne Rich (“no relation,” she quickly adds) and Ellen Bass and Denise Levertov.
In Rich’s fantasies, she’d be a great singer, and that aspiration to musical talent does come through in the writing and the reading of the poems. That said, “I think rhythm in poetry is different” from music. “I’ve been told I don’t read the poem the same way each time,” Rich says, and she sounds happy about that. “I don’t want to sing my poems, I don’t want to do the terrible poet-voice. I love reading.”
When she writes, Rich says, “I have no interest in being obscure.” But she’s not a narrative poet, either. She keeps a distance from her subject: “my point in poetry is usually hovering above.” Sometimes, she feels uncategorizable. “They don’t know where to put me. They say I don’t fit in a Northwest poetry tradition.”
“I suppose the element that keeps me from being a narrative poet is the surreal,” but she quickly corrects herself: “I don’t claim to be a surrealist.” Then, more thoughtfully: “I’m not sure there are even surrealists walking around. I’m not sure anyone ever wanted to be claimed by that title.”
And sometimes surrealism is nothing more than an accurate reflection of reality. “I have a poem that comes from a news story of a 99 year old woman waking up one morning and finding a kinkajou — an exotic animal from Brazil — sleeping on her chest.” Rich says that image “grabbed my imagination and I had to imagine what would it be like to be a 99 year old woman, husband dead, to find this warm thing resting on her chest.”
The resulting poem is gorgeous, with the kinkajou — "this feral thing she’s never known before" — resting on the elderly widow “like an unexamined question.” Rich found the heart in the news story, and she reported the loneliness and the excitement back to her readers.
Rich is working to complete a new book of poetry that centers on “a relationship I had when I was in my late twenties that ended disastrously in an abortion. That’s as baldly as I can put it.” This summer, she’s going to work to finally get the poems edited and ordered and “off my computer.” Rich sounds a little scared of the new book, but entirely confident that it’s the book that she needs to be writing right now. “Poetry is the way I make sense of the world,” she says.
Nakayama is one of the most exciting folk musicians in Seattle right now, and his songs are intensely interested in narrative. He’s resistant to my suggestion that narrative is currently out of style in music. “It depends on the genre,” he says. “Folk music is especially built around storytelling and setting stories to music.”
He’s willing to admit that “maybe in the realm of popular music,” narratives aren’t as popular right now — it’s been decades since Top 40 radio was populated with storytelling music. Perhaps, Nakayama says, that’s because tech-addled attention spans reward artists who traffic in “shorter vignettes instead of sustained narrative,” but he thinks that story and song will always be combined in some way.
Nakayama believes that his authorial perspective has deepened over time. “I think I used to write kind of exclusively from a first-person point of view. And I guess I still do, but it’s less autobiographical now — less literal, maybe.”
“I think I’ve become more observational as I’ve gotten older,” he says. “When you’re younger, you think the whole world is about you.” But Nakayama has realized with time that “there’s only so much you can say about yourself before you get bored, and to just keep from running out of ideas you start to look around and observe the world around you.” Ultimately, even those observational stories share something about the artist: “through describing those things, you start to reveal things about yourself that you weren’t even aware were there.”
Who does Nakayama turn to when he wants to hear a good story-centered song? “Locally, Sera Cahoone is one of my favorite songwriters,” he says, also citing Seattle hip-hop artist DoNormaal. “People who tell their stories in a way that no one else can is really appealing to me.”
Why is it so important that Folklife is focusing on stories in song at this particular time? “Everything is so polarized right now,” Nakayama says, “and my songs aren’t overtly political in nature but I feel like what’s being lost in a lot of these conversations is just the basic respect for humanity.”
“So that’s really what my songs try to convey — little stories of people and of everyday life and reminding ourselves of what we have in common,” he says. Music works better than any other storytelling medium for Nakayama when it comes to “bringing it back to what our core values are as human beings.” Common experiences that inspire empathy in others, he says, is “the kind of story I like to tell.”
When he's not editing the forward-thinking science/fiction magazine Scout.ai, Eliot Peper writes sci-fi novels. His latest, Bandwidth, is a neo-noir centered around a lobbyist who is nearly crushed under the massive weight of information overload. Peper talked with us about gender roles in noir fiction, where he looks for sci-fi inspiration, and how we're still wrestling with the ramifications of the internet. This interview has been lightly edited.
You’ve written a noir novel and you’re obviously a forward-thinking guy, and I’m curious how you approach writing this noir-ish hyper-masculine genre in a modern context. I think that you do have an interesting angle on it, but if I were to tell a reader to try a noir novel starring a character named Dag Calhoun I think some people might balk. You know what I mean?
Sure. It’s interesting writing Dag, because he’s the first straight male character that I’ve written as a single protagonist. I have one other book, Cumulus, where there were three point-of-view protagonists, and there was one other male character in that book. But Bandwidth was actually the first, and sort of interestingly, Bandwidth is part of a trilogy, but it’s not a linear trilogy.
So the second and third book all take place in the same universe, have a lot of the same cast, but they different protagonists and they have different narrative and character arcs. You can actually read each of the books independently if you wanted to. And so, it was an interesting learning experience for me getting comfortable writing Dag, which is sort of ironic given that I am a straight, white, male.
I am every category that would fit that genre in theory, but that’s actually not what most of my writing has been like to date. So it was interesting coming at it from that angle. And I actually had fun with it. Unfortunately, there’s a great example that I can’t give because it would be a spoiler. But I really did try to play with some of that stuff in the book.
Yeah, there’s a scene very early on where Dag’s led around by his erection, and it felt like you were very cued into the traps of the genre.
Yeah, and I think as you read on, you might find some fun psychological ones as well. And so I found that to be an interesting experience: it was a learning opportunity for me to try to be more aware of the cultural context that the story would fit into, and then it was also interesting because it was my first time doing it, so that was fun.
I didn’t actually approach writing Dag much differently than I’ve written other characters in the past. The first trilogy I ever wrote — the first book came out back in 2014 — had an African-American female protagonist, and one of those things that I heard from readers in that community was that the story spoke to them in part because it just like how anyone would look at the world. It wasn’t actually that specific. Her cultural background was not actually relevant to the story and it wasn’t a big deal basically in the context of the story — even though for other characters there were impacts.
But it was not a book about race, and I think that for readers sometimes that can be a positive thing. It’s not intended to be a book about masculinity, even though that is woven through the story and certainly relevant to its cultural context. I don’t know if that answered your question.
No, it did. I think it’s an issue that people who read my site would consider when browsing the cover copy and considering picking up the book.
Yeah, that’s true. And one thing I would say that might be relevant to those readers is that not limited to Dag’s gender identity or cultural background or anything like that.
What I find most interesting as a novelist is ambiguity, shades of gray where there’s a lot of conflict. So whenever I’m working on any kind of character, I’m always looking for that zone where their hopes and fears intersect, and the weird patches where they’re not actually sure about their own moral standing or certainty — where they’re not just charging in with this very, very clear sense of what is right and wrong. I’m much, much more interested in the nuance in the middle.
And that applies to Dag’s identity and it applies to his worldview. He’s not someone who has a really clear sense of moral superiority, and he’s sort of a conflicted protagonist. He’s not a hero right off the bat. And it also applies to the worldbuilding.
It’s funny because sometimes I hear from readers when they read Bandwidth, they’ll call it a dystopian novel. And what I find really interesting about that is that I did not think of it as a dystopian novel while writing it. There are certainly some dark things that happen in the world — some of the impacts of accelerated climate change and stuff like that are certainly dark — but there are actually some really beautiful and wonderful things about this future that we might not have imagined either. And so,
I always try to look for those shades of gray and that nuance, so I hope that even if the description makes you think that it’s a very straight up masculine noir story, that if you actually give it a read and take the story for a spin you might discover that there’s more complexity there than you might have guessed otherwise.
You’ve got a concept in the book called the Feed. Most people receive their media, their information in the form of a feed, which is like a gutter with information flowing through it in more or less chronological order. Were you picturing this sort of gutter of a feed when you were thinking about The Feed in this book? Do you think that we are trapped in this informational flow for the near future, this particular way of getting information?
Yeah, so I guess the way I think about it is that digital technology, computers, and computer networks have so vastly decreased the cost of storing and distributing and sharing and publishing information that information is now free. We take it for granted. We take Wikipedia for granted, we take Google for granted, we take all of these things for granted. And what that means is that compared to any other human at any other point in history, we walk around with all knowledge in our pockets at our beck and call.
And that can be very empowering in very obvious ways: your sink is broken, so you look on YouTube for this precise model and it will show you how to take it apart and fix it. But it also presents us with this new challenge that no one has ever had to face before, and that is, when you have this surfeit of information, how do you actually find the useful, relevant stuff? And we are currently at the very, very beginning point in history of ever having to improvise through solutions to that problem.
And so, some obvious examples of solutions that we are currently experimenting with are Google search, where you ask the internet a question and they have an algorithm that takes, I think, between three and four hundred independent variables to automatically calculate what the results should be for you. It’s not just ranked links, it is incredibly sophisticated.
If you use Gmail or similar large services, those services are now becoming algorithmic. You’ll probably notice that in your email inbox that things get automatically filtered into different categories like “promotions” or “social.” The algorithm can be useful because it becomes this filter that allows us to ignore the stuff that’s less important, or to categorize information for us in some way or another. And I think that there’s really no way to get around the fact that when you have all of this of information you need to be able to filter it.
Just as most Netflix viewers have experienced, when you go to watch Netflix a lot of the time you end up spending 45 minutes trying to decide what to watch, and you end up never really watching anything, right?
And that points to how bad we are at this. For all the news items about the power of Big Data and social media, this is a massive information problem that we are really only starting to come to grips with. And I think that there are so many really complex issues baked into how you filter information that we’ve never had to deal with before.
I don’t know if you’ve read much about bias baked into machine learning models, but there’s a great example in policing where you have a bunch of arrest records that show certain types of people are arrested more often than others. It doesn’t take into account that it actually might be reflective of a much greater systemic corruption and not just the fact those should be the people getting arrested.
There are so many decisions baked into that, that many of us don’t even realize are happening. So we experience the results of the feed, the architecture of those feeds is opaque to us. And I think that is a really big challenge that will be one of the big issues of this century. Because the media you consume, the information you access, shapes the way you see the world and shapes the decisions you make — both in your own life on a very personal level, like, “what Netflix show am I gonna watch?” and also, at a community level, even up to the level of the federal government: “what kinds of rules should we have about how people do things on the Internet?”
Yeah, so this is a question I think that probably every sci fi author gets asked a lot, but it seems like you’re cutting very close to the modern time with this book so I’m going to ask anyway: how do you write about the future without getting steamrolled by it?
Well, I very well might. Hopefully, my answer to this question will have somewhat of a halflife. We’ll see.
I think that science fiction is really about the present, not about the future. So if you read 1984, it was written in 1948. And I think it was written about 1948, and I think that the reason why it feels relevant in 2018 tells us more about 2018 than about George Orwell. Or I guess it tells us that he is an amazing novelist and an amazing observer of the human condition. But I think it speaks far more to the feeling of living in a society that is beyond our control and the paranoia that can come through that. It’s a great metaphor for state surveillance.
What I find interesting about science fiction as a reader is that it sort of transports me into this plausible alternative reality. And because it is an alternative reality, it actually gives my imagination more space because I’m not constantly questioning the veracity of the every fact. And then when I return, hopefully, it’s a very compelling and transformative experience. And so when I come back to my present reality, my own world view has shifted a bit so it actually helped me challenge the assumptions that I make every day when I look at the world. That’s what I get out of science fiction as a reader.
As a writer, I have no way to predict the future. If we were able to predict the future, it would be very, very boring, and science fiction would actually be totally useless. I think that the power of science fiction is that it can paint multiple different futures, and that by experiencing those very different futures then we’ll have more context for the decisions we make today.
But I have kind of a game that readers might want to try in their own lives just for fun, and writers might find it useful if they’re trying to write about the future. Rather than trying to read a trend report, or something like that, try to look for weird details in the present rather than having a thought experiment about the future.
So as an example, William Gibson has that famous quote, “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And how can you find those pockets in the present day of future that has not yet been evenly distributed? So I’ll give you one example: Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian’s hot tip for predicting the future is to look at rich people, which initially sounds horribly Silicon Valley techno-libertarian, right?
But if you take it a step deeper, you can actually find that it’s a really useful. Who were the people that could afford to drive cars? Rich people. TWho are the first people to ride on trains? Rich people, because they were the only people who could afford them. If you look at the history of technology, rich people are almost always the earliest adopters because the new technology that has been developed is only accessible at that pricepoint early on, before it becomes mainstream.
So if you want to think about what might the world look like in 10 years, or in 20 years, one fun way to think about that is: what are things that only very rich people do today, and what if those things were things that everyone had access to all the time?
So that’s one fun way to do it. I would take that a level deeper and say, don’t just limit it to rich people. One of the communities that I like to learn from is hobbyists — people who do things for the intrinsic joy of doing the thing. They’re doing stuff just for fun, not for financial gain, not for fame or fortune. They’re doing it because they just get a lot of joy out of tinkering and screwing around with whatever their hobby is.
Often those communities also can turn out to be pockets of the future that has arrived early, because they’re so absorbed in whatever it is that they’re passionate about that they make these strides that nobody even realizes could be really transformative for our society as a whole until they’re much more widely distributed. A good example of that would actually be very, very, very early Silicon Valley, where you had a lot of people who were playing with computers. This is decades and decades and decades ago, basically for fun, right?
They would screw around and trade stuff with friends and trade ideas with friends. The way of thinking they developed has now come to be a huge part of the economy and of our of politics and of the things we use everyday. And so, if you are a science fiction writer and you want to try to tease out what might be an interesting scenario, try those two. Think about what rich people might be doing and what if everybody had access to it, and then think about what hobbyists might be doing and what if everybody was doing that all the time too.
That’s great. Both of those tests sort of apply to Apple, because Steve Jobs started out as a phone phreak, but then obviously the luxury computing component came into it later on in his career.
Yeah, absolutely. The third thing, I guess the closer, I would say, is that I read very widely. But the one genre that helps me think about the future most effectively is reading a lot of history. If anybody is interested in trying to think more flexibly about the future, I think that history is the best guide.
Just as with reading good science fiction, reading good history shows you in how many ways the world can change. The lives we live today are so fundamentally different than the lives of ancient Romans. In fact, my grandparents wouldn’t even understand what I call a job today. And they certainly wouldn’t understand the stuff that I use every day and how I’m able to communicate with people. We live in a world full of wonders and we’re so jaded because we use it all the time that it’s really easy to take everything for granted.
But if you read history and you really try to imagine yourself living in that era, you’ll very quickly think about how malleable our world is. Not just the technologies we use, but our cultural institutions, our political instructions, our daily life. It has changed a lot, and I find that thinking in those ways tends to relax the constraints that I have on my own thinking when I try to look forward.
Since 2008, Seattle nonprofit Books to Prisoners has been based out of the University Christian Church in the U District. "It's a nice space," Books to Prisoners vice president Andy Chan tells me. "It's about 900 square feet when you include our storage." From those cozy offices, Books to Prisoners has shipped thousands of books to prisons around Washington state and the rest of the country.
But now, Chan says, things are about to change. "Basically, like a lot of churches," he says, University Christian Church is "suffering from a decrease in congregation size, so they're making the hard decision to congregate with another church." That means the space the church provided for Books to Prisoners and other social service organizations is disappearing. Books to Prisoners has to find a new location in the next three months.
So now, Chan says, they need your help. If you know of any affordable office space for a great literary nonprofit, please let Books to Prisoners know. "What we're looking for is ideally 800 square feet," Chan explains. He's been with the organization since 1994, and "we've crammed into 600 square feet before," but "people are falling over each other and it's quite intimate." Additionally, a space that size "decreases the amount of storage you have," which means the organization's access to books is limited.
"We'd like a space that is somewhere close to transit because a lot of volunteers are on transit of some sort," Chan says. "Parking, so we can load and unload, would be helpful," along with a ramp or elevator if it's not on the first floor because Books to Prisoners is always "moving a lot of cartons of books," and if stairs are involved "people's backs are always going out."
"And an incredibly cheap rent would be helpful," Chan says. "Our expenses are about $50,000 per year," with only one paid part-time staffer. Books to Prisoners, he says, spends "$30,000 on postage" annually. A high rent would limit the books the organization could send out and "would be really difficult for us to manage." (You can find a full description of Books to Prisoners's office needs on their blog.)
Of course, if you don't have a lead on a new office, you can still help Books to Prisoners. You could donate your time as a volunteer, or you could support the organization financially. Today is Give Big, the Seattle Foundation's annual donation drive for local nonprofits, and Books to Prisoners is a part of the program.
Over the last few months, prisons have been in the news for adopting policies barring organizations from delivering books to inmates. In New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed one such policy after a massive public outcry.
Is Books to Prisoners encountering more of these kinds of anti-book policies? "Here's the thing," Chan says: "We deal with these kind of problems constantly. They come up in the news sometimes, but it's something we face every year because we ship to all 50 states. Just last week, the feds backed down from a sweeping change" that would have made it harder to ship books to inmates.
Washington state's prisons have vacillated between more and less permissive book-shipping policies. Penitentiaries in Walla Walla and Connell have occasionally banned used books. What could be the reason behind a used-book ban? Chan suggests that prisons run by private companies have a vested interest in making sure inmates buy new books from the commissary.
Clearly, there's more need than ever for Books for Prisoners. "Books help prisoners to be better people," Chan says. His message for Seattle Review of Books readers: "if they have interest in literacy, in books, in allowing people to learn and better themselves while they're in prison, we're a great charity to give to. We spend almost nothing on overhead."
"It's a constant fight to make sure people have access to something incredibly basic," Chan says. He believes completely in the mission: "please, somebody find me an argument for why it would be a terrible idea to give books to prisoners," he says. "I'd love to hear it."
"If you're ever introducing me at a party," our April Poet in Residence Jeanine Walker says, "introduce me as a poet." She ticks down the list of ways she's often described: "don't say I'm a musician, don't say I have a variety show, don't say I've written a novel. I'm a poet."
The risk of being described as a multihyphenate artist is real. Walker moved to Seattle a decade ago, and in the years since, she's insinuated herself into seemingly every aspect of our literary culture. Walker debuted on the local scene as the quick-witted host of the late, lamented Cheap Wine & Poetry and Cheap Beer & Prose reading series. She's the host and curator of the Mixed Bag variety show that until recently took place at the Royal Room in Columbia City and will likely relaunch at a new venue this fall. She's a musician, she's written a novel, and she's currently working on a novella-slash-album with her husband, Steve Mauer.
And Walker is an educator, too. She works with Seattle Arts and Lectures' amazing Writers in the Schools program, which teaches Seattle-area students to "discover and develop their authentic writing and performance voices."
She also coaches writers one-on-one, helping them develop their voice and shepherding them through the process of creating works of literature, from first draft through finished book. "I love coaching," she gushes. "I feel like that's my special gift. When I'm working with people, I think I'm able to read what someone is doing and notice what they might hope that their piece is going to do and then ask good questions to help them arrive at that conclusion." This isn't a one-way transaction: Walker greatly enjoys the deep dive into a person's work. One of her writers lives in New York and they regularly chat over Skype, Walker says, and "I've gotten to read his books, and it's a real privilege to get to know his characters."
But like Walker says: above all else, she's a poet. And she's not one of those stare-out-a-window-and-write-one-line-per-month kind of poets. No, Jeanine Walker writes. A lot. Every day. "I'm writing so many new poems that some of them won't ever be published," Walker says. Those unread poems are helpful, though, she says "because they helped me to get to the other ones," the ones that readers get to see.
One of the things I love most about Walker's poems is that they seem strongly built around a moment. Walker's poetry is immersive; she places you into a location and time with great economy, and then she wallops you with detail. Consider "Conversation," which begins "The rain pinched the glass/of the windowpane." You know the sounds that particular type of rain makes, you can feel the emotion that it brings to you. It's as vivid as an excellent haiku - in fewer syllables.
And in "At Night, Asleep," a gentle noise awakens the poet and her mind wanders. She thinks about her mother, about the need for our parents that never really dies. It's an atmospheric poem - a ghost story with a happy-ish ending - and the heart of the poem is a line that feels so specific that it's universal: "I mistook the sadness for beauty." Really, at one time in your life or another, haven't you mistaken sadness for beauty? Hasn't everyone?
Walker agrees with my assessment of her poems as largely built around very specific moments. "I am interested when I'm revising a poem that an image is as clear as it can be and that it's doing something." But she's not a narrative poet, exactly: "What's being made clear might not always make logical sense, or be linear, or even be clear."
This love of poetry came almost at the beginning. "I was writing stories when I was really little and I wrote my first poem in 7th grade," Walker says. In ninth grade, she found a mentor in a poetry teacher who encouraged her to write poetry for the rest of high school.
With Writers in the Schools, Walker is finding her own inspiration in the students. "The kids I'm working with now are second to fifth grade," she says. "I really see them as their own people, and their own poets." Walker says one of the girls in her class recently rhymed the word "enough-y" with "stuffy," and the delight of the pairing kept her going for days afterward.
All Walker's many talents and pastimes, ultimately, come back to the poetry. The performance, the coaching, the teaching, the prose all inform the poems. She's close to finishing a manuscript, and she's shopping individual poems around to different outlets. When I ask about her process, she shows me the wirebound notebook she's been filling with poetry. The handwriting starts legibly, but as the poems draw on, the writing becomes messier, more ecstatic as the poem pours out of her. Even without reading the poems, it's obvious that their writing was a biological imperative.
Walker affirms the urgency of the writing. "Without poetry," she says, smiling, "I would not be."
Alison Luhrs (left in the above photo) and Amalia Larson (right) regularly perform an improv show called Book Club, in which they play a pair of "shallow, well-off adults discussing a book supplied by the audience while consuming a massive amount of wine." Their next performance is this Sunday, April 22nd at 5:30 pm at the Pocket Theater. In this interview, they discuss the books that they've most loved to riff on, the books they most love in real life, and what you should expect from Book Club if you've never attended in improv show before.
This is such a great idea for a show-I imagine getting good audience suggestions is one of the most tricky things about improv, so it seems like the books must help to focus the show. Could you explain the premise in your own words? And did this show's premise evolve, or did it come to you fully-formed?
ALISON: Book Club is about extraordinarily priviliged, trend-obsessed people with zero self-awareness trying to use literature to relate to their lives. We get a book from the audience, and the premise of the show is that we are the only two members who remembered to show up to their monthly book club meeting. We then crack open a bottle of wine (dry and slammable is our go-to) and pretend we've read the book before reading passages out loud. The passages serve as a launching-off point for the characters to talk about their lives and occasionally have profound revelations about the way they see the world. The book provides us thematic direction that always gives the characters something new to connect with. The women we play are sometimes secret shoplifters, sometimes cheating on their husbands, sometimes falling in love with each other, sometimes addicted to painkillers, but always contain a secret depth. They're the kind of people who use acai bowls and soulcycle classes to show the world how put-together they are when everything is falling apart.
The show concept originally came from Amalia and I making fun of trend-obsessed mommy bloggers, which quickly devolved into us revealing tragic backstories for imaginary people we were just making fun of. Seattle's Improv scene is having a real explosion of experimental unscripted theatre right now, and we've been performing together for ten years, so the show felt like it would be fun!
AMALIA: Yeah, the show itself has evolved some and obviously the content is different every time, but the premise has pretty much always stayed the same. As we were starting to really get into it riffing on this idea, we discovered that there is basically endless material to be found within the archetype of these vapid, secretly desperate, moneyed women. We could throw these characters into a slice-of-life type setting with just a suggestion for an idea from the audience and there would be plenty to run with (or Zumba with, or Kegel with, pick your poison), but having the addition of the book from the audience keeps the surprises coming in real-time for us and gives us a device to build tension, break it, give a moment a button or an ally-oop, and even lovingly throw each other under the bus once in a while. We've got to stay on our toes after all.
I used to run the book clubs at Elliott Bay Book Company, and it seems as though "book club ladies" are a relatively easy target for mockery. There are a ton of easy book club jokes in pop culture-mean-spirited jokes about rich white ladies who drink a lot and can barely read, which doesn't reflect the reality of book clubs as I know them. You play with these expectations but you don't come from a place of superiority. How do you manage to avoid the cliches and find something worthwhile to investigate in your characters? Have your relationships with the characters changed over time?
ALISON: The best part about comedy is being able to trick an audience into caring about someone they were just laughing at. Flipping the power structure not just onstage, but between how the audience views the subject. Our women are wealthy, fixated on appearances, but at their core are desperate for meaning and connection. One of my favorite devices we use in the show is that we allow for one or two 'drops' -- moments when one of the characters will have an honest-to-god deep thought, only to be broken out of the trance a moment later by the other woman purposefully changing the subject. It's totally uplifting and deflating at the same time, and is born entirely out of a character choosing to be introspective for possibly the first time in their life, all thanks to whatever text they were just reading a passage from. We adore these characters, and I think we can mock their pretentions without mocking their personhood. All people are worthwhile, even the ones you avoid when you go to Whole Foods.
AMALIA: I feel like those clichés are a gift! Everyone knows exactly the type of people these characters are referring to which makes it so fun to use the known aspects of the stereotype as a spring board. Moments of shallowness or obliviousness that play directly into the stereotype make people laugh because they feel spot-on or eyeroll-inducingly familiar, but moments that truly break the clichés and reveal something of more substance are disarming specifically because they are unexpected from these characters you thought you knew so well a minute ago. When the armor is polished to perfection, it's that much more surprising to find the cracks. Being aware of where we're playing in relation to those edges, I would say, is a huge part of the fun. But at the end of the day, the most important part is that it all comes from a place of love rather than ridicule. These women care so earnestly about who and what they care about, that's where the humanity lies, but what they care so much about is, you know, designer yoga mats and who brought the best snacks to the peewee lacrosse championship, that's where the comedy lies.
Have you ever belonged to a real book club? What books do you like to read?
ALISON: I make fantasy games for a living, so staying up on my SFF is important. I subscribe to Uncanny Magazine for SFF short stories, and survive otherwise on a steady stream of Tor novels. All that magic and wonder can be a bit overwhelming at times, though, so I also try to dabble in nonfiction to cleanse the palette. I recently finished The Only Harmless Great Thing (which if you like alt history with radioactive elephants is a real gem) and am about halfway through I'll be Gone in the Dark, so I'm sort of all over the place with my reading list.
AMALIA: Honestly, I read almost exclusively nonfiction, I'm kind of a creature of habit like that. My favorites are usually either research-driven social science - most recently Bonk by Mary Roach and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, or personal essays and memoirs like Sloan Crosley and Augusten Burroughs and anything ever by any Sedaris. I try to keep up on the books my favorite comedy folks write too-the Oswalts and Poehlers and Martins of the world. It's good to have role models. And this show is the only book club I've ever been a part of so far, but I'd be down.
Do any books make repeat performances in the audience? Are there any books you maybe wish you could ban from the show, or that you've mined to the point of diminishing returns?
ALISON: We've never had a repeat book! We've done Starship Troopers, The Fish Won't Let Me Sleep, even a physics text originally written in Japanese and translated into English. With that last one we learned the hard way that academic texts don't necessarily make for funny passages.
AMALIA: I don't know though, we had that one really thick textbook from the seventies about family psychology and that was a pretty good one. I keep waiting for someone to bring in like a dictionary or a bible or phone book or something (they still do phone books, right?). I'm sure we'd make it work, but that would definitely be a curveball. It's more fun and we find weirder stuff when we just pick something arbitrarily and it turns out to be way out of left field.
What are some memorable books you've worked with? Is there a formula for choosing a good book to work with?
ALISON: The best ones are the weird ones. Fish Won't Let Me Sleep had a lot of passages about spawning patterns, which is just about the deepest well in comedy, so that was great.
AMALIA: Fish Won't Let Me Sleep, FOR SURE. I think if anything, the formula is just to not overthink it. If you just pick that random historical fiction novel your uncle gave you that one Christmas that you've never read, odds are good that's gonna be the real winner.
I recall being intimidated before I attended my first improv show. Do you have any advice for SRoB readers who are considering coming to your show who have maybe never attended an improv show before?
ALISON: There is nothing worse than invasive improv. Having a stranger demand you answer questions and possibly get onstage is THE WORST THING EVER, and it's okay to hate things that are invasive and terrible. A good performer will always ask, will never touch, and isn't going to bother you if you don't want to be bothered with. Volunteering a friend never works either -- that's always a cue for me to swoop up the obnoxious friend who did the pointing.
The good news is that you won't have to worry about that with our show! Seattle's please-don't-talk-to-me attitude applies to our improv scene, too, and the nice thing about improv in the Pacific Northwest is that in our theatrical community we like our shows to feel like plays (it's something that really sets our scene apart from the rest of the country). If we can make you forget we never memorized lines, we've succeeded. All you need to know if you see our show is that at the beginning we'll ask the audience if they would like to let us borrow a physical book for an hour. We'll collect the book, and then the show will start! And we'll never ask you a question again for the rest of the show! Hooray! A good rule of thumb in improv is that you don't need to yell unless someone on the stage asks the audience a question. We also recommend the audience buy some wine from the concession stand and drink along - it'll only make us funnier. Come expecting to watch a play, because that's what unscripted theatre is!
AMALIA: Yes to all of that so much. There is nothing worse than improv that tasks the audience with making the show funny or not. Being part of a show is great! Being part of a show against your will is awful. If you come to Book Club, you should feel kind of like you're just sitting in on a meeting of a real book club that just happens to be with the kind of people who know the difference between a decent fumé blanc and trash, and prioritize the health of their nail beds over real literary analysis or personal reflection. It's a really good time.
The last Saturday in this month, April 28th, is Independent Bookstore Day - a celebration of books and the small businesses that celebrate literary culture year round. We'll have a lot to say about Independent Bookstore Day over the course of the month, but we thought we'd begin the conversation by talking with two owners of smaller local bookstores - Jenny Cole of Burien's Page 2 Books, and Annie Carl of Bothell's Neverending Bookshop - about their plans for the day, what they've been reading, and why independent bookselling is so important to them.
Do you have anything special planned for Independent Bookstore Day?
We do. We always like to have authors come in the store, so that day we have three different authors.
And are those reading, or signings, or are they both?
They're signings, and they'll be working here in the store. Generally what we do - it's my favorite way to authors in - we just have a table set up with their books and information about them, and then they wander around and talk to customers about what they're reading, and about their books. It's just very relaxed, informal.
We will also have lots of giveaways that day. We've got a couple of tables set up with [advance reader copies], as well as book bags, books that we're giving away, some merchandise. So everybody that comes in and shops here will get a little something to take home with them.
What's a book you've read recently that you've loved?
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater is one that I absolutely love. It's a true story - young adult. Our book club read it, and I think everybody in the book club really enjoyed it. It's kind of a shocking book in what it deals with, but it's so well written. It's been winning lots of awards.
Why do independent bookstores matter to you?
I think it's very important. We had somebody place an order the other day - she lives in Illinois, and called our store because she was getting a book for her granddaughter who lives here.
And she sent a note shortly after placing the order saying, "these are the reasons why I love shopping independent." She called in the order, she got the book that she wanted, we wrapped it for her, we talked to her about the purchase. It was more than pressing a button on a computer or calling a big warehouse where maybe the person that answers the phone doesn't read or doesn't know about the books.
I just think the experience that people have is so different in an independent book store - as it is for any small business. I love to frequent small businesses because you get the personal experience.
Do you have anything special planned for Independent Bookstore Day?
Since the shop is so small, doing like really big activities is not much of an option, so instead I've got authors lined up pretty much all day; Laurie Thompson, who's a children's book author, will be there from ten to noon; and then Paul Boulet who self-published his book The Serial Murders of Mars, will be there noon to two. Jeff J. Peters - who wrote Cathadeus, which is a fantasy novel - he'll be there two to four; and then my friend Rachel who is a self-published author also is going to be there four to six. She'll basically help us close up the day.
And then in addition to that, we're going to be stamping passports, ringing books, and we're going to have book trivia again this year. That's the one activity we had last year, and it went really, really well. We have prizes - posters, advance reader's copies, other bookish swag for Indie Bookstore Day.
What's a book you've read recently that you've loved?
I'm currently in the middle of In The Country by Mia Alvar. It's short stories about the Philippines. But before that I read a book called Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, and it's thirteen essays about what being fat means around the world. Twelve anthropologists and one fat activist - as she proclaims herself to be - wrote essays for the book, and it's stunning. It totally put my body image issues, and our current cultural body image issues, in perspective. And it's kind of outside of what I usually read; I usually read science fiction, fantasy, and lots of young adult and children's books. So this was kind of something new for me and I really, really enjoyed it.
Why do independent bookstores matter to you?
I've always been an independent bookseller. I started working as a bookseller when I was fifteen and I just - boy, it's such a loaded question and it's such an easy question and such a hard question all kind of wrapped into one.
Indie Bookstore Day for me is just a major celebration of bookstores and all of the marvelous things that we stand for -promoting free thought, promoting new ideas, promoting banned books, fighting censorship, promoting all of these different authors who maybe wouldn't have a platform if we weren't available to give them that platform.
Indie bookstores are still well-known for promoting our local community. I'm the only bookstore in a two- or three-mile radius, and so I have a solid customer base of people that can walk to my shop. They're families that walk down to the bookstore, and to the cafe to get some coffee, and that's what community bookstores are.
Those dollars that come into the shop go directly towards feeding my family and my child, and they also go toward the education process that we do at the store. We help people talk about why books are important to them - even if it's a science fiction novel or a fantasy novel, or a romance novel, it brings new ideas to them. It's more important to have a free-thinking society now more than ever, and I think indie book stores help keep our nation and our world free-thinking.
For me, being an indie bookseller and running an indie bookstore is really important to make sure that everyone has a chance to present their thoughts and ideas. Whether it's self-published or traditionally published, or whether you're coming into a bookstore and picking up a book you didn't think you were gonna read before - that's what I exist for.
It's definitely been more than six months since three Seattle independent presses - Mount Analogue, Cold Cube Press, and Gramma Poetry - took up residence in the XYZ Gallery in Pioneer Square to form a publishing house/bookstore/art gallery. But when I sit down to talk with Mount Analogue founder Colleen Louise Barry, she has trouble figuring out exactly how long the space has been open.
Cold Cube co-founder Aidan Fitzgerald does the math on his fingers. They've been running for eight months. Barry explodes: "Eight months! That both feels correct and incorrect."
What are some of their favorite events that have happened in the space so far? "The BDSM opera actually was a big surprise," Barry says, "because I sort of felt like this is either going to be an enormous failure or people are going to get it. The idea of charging people money for tickets kind of always freaked me out, but people were into it. So maybe we will do more stuff like that."
Fitzgerald reflects on a more recent event. "Colleen and I had a class of students come last week and check out Mount Analogue and the Cold Cube space and that was really, really fun." He enjoyed showing off the Risograph press and the bookmaking process. "We want to do more workshops," Fitzgerald says, "to teach people bookmaking and book design and, you know, why you have to have a title page and why page one starts on the right, and things like that." Additionally, he says, having the room to physically assemble the books is vital: "We're putting out a book a month and we wouldn't be able to do that without this space."
When I ask what the biggest challenge of operating a new space is, Barry doesn't even hesitate a second before blurting out "money." She laughs at her own answer. "Money, and also expectations - everything that you want to happen that maybe you can't make happen, or don't know how to make happen but wish you could. It's all part of having a physical space. It exists and takes up room, and that's a big responsibility."
Fitzgerald feels the responsibility, too. The space, he says, "legitimizes all of our operations and it also raises the bar for what we're doing and how we're doing."
There are some big changes in store for the last third of the first year in the space: Cold Cube and Mount Analogue are teaming up to take over Gramma. What does that mean for the future of the press?
"We're starting a monthly newsletter called The Monthly Gramma, which is a physical newsletter that's Risograph-printed by Cold Cube press," Barry explains. The newsletter is "designed by [Cold Cube co-founder] Michael [Heck], who's our lead designer. It's going to be mailed out, and it will have a bunch of really amazing shit on it." She's not kidding; the beta test of the newsletter is a beautifully printed broadsheet featuring a giant poem broadside on one side and then an array of material - poems, interviews, quotes, trivia, event information - artfully arranged on the other.
Barry says the Weekly Gramma email newsletter is getting an update, too: "we want to transform it into more of a magazine that has a lot of varied content including video work and criticism and poetry and visual work." (You can read an archive of the Weekly Gramma or sign up for the email on the press's website.)
So what's next for the physical space? On April 5th and 12th, Barry is hosting a performance by Jess Joy called "The Singing Mime", which she says is "more akin to modern dance then pantomime - more an expression of narrative through movement." The event includes spoken word and music and dance and a papier-mâché installation that's being built especially for the event.
Cold Cube is hosting its own event during Art Walk on the 5th. They'll be celebrating the publication of Behind Is Late, a book by Spanish artist Cynthia Alfonso. Fitzgerald calls it "a resonant poem-comic about anxiety and the fear of a tomorrow that is constantly happening today." Cold Cube will be showing prints from the book and an animated video project co-produced by Alfonso.
Fitzgerald says Behind Is Late "is one of the most, if not the most, Cold Cube book we've ever made, in that it's kind of a comic, it's kind of one long poem, and the pages themselves stand alone, like beautiful drawings." Fitzgerald says the book is "my conception of what art books and art comics can do. This can only be done in this form. You cannot make it into a movie, you cannot make it a song. It's beautiful because it's a book, which is what Michael [Heck] and I have really tried to make with Cold Cube."
The book, he says, is an "argument for books."
There's a lot more to come from the publishers: they're preparing a blockbuster quarterly reading series in conjunction with a few stalwart Seattle arts organizations that Barry says is intended to "get people in the seats that might not otherwise go to a poetry reading." (If the first lineup comes together as Barry promises, you will be attending this one.) And they're working with Vignettes to put together a citywide art project for May that incorporates public art and words and audience participation.
It's exhausting just hearing about their plans, but Barry and Fitzgerald seem ready to get to work. Sitting there at a large table in the Cold Cube offices, with two large Risograph printers ready to be put to service, they're in exactly the right place to make all their big ideas happen.
Our March Poet in Residence, Julene Tripp Weaver, is right now having a moment. This month, she's reading multiple times all over the region and her most recent poetry collection, Truth be bold — Serenading life & death in the age of AIDS was nominated for a Lambda Award. She's squeezing more activity into the month of March than most poets in Seattle manage to do in a year. But Weaver isn't an overnight success; she's been quietly putting out and reading quality work in Seattle for a couple of decades, and she'll keep writing and reading even when the spotlight moves to another poet for a while. Weaver was gracious enough to make some time to talk with us about her career, her moment, and what's next.
I've known you for more than 15 years now! You used to read at the open mic I hosted at Elliott Bay Book Company from 2002 to 2008. Even then, you seemed like a confident and talented poet.
When I lived in New York, I did readings. After moving west, because of the process of resettling and going back to school for my Masters, readings were not a priority. But I was writing - mostly in my journal. At a birthday party I attended, a biker made a statement: "If you're a biker you've got to ride." I translated that sentence to, "If you are a writer, you've got to read."
It was one of those light bulb moments, and I started reading publicly again in May 2002. Elliott Bay was my favorite venue because of your gracious hosing style: inclusive, supportive, fun, and welcoming to anyone who wanted to read. I appreciated that it was a full range of literature, not simply poetry, and that your venue in Pioneer Square created a community. The two highlights for me was the haiku challenge you sponsored and subsidized, and during intermissions when you read your writing. I met so many people I am still in touch with at those open mikes. Your nurturance of writers and independent bookstores is a gift you give to Seattle.
That's unbelievably nice of you. Thank you. Can you talk a little bit about your journey into poetry?
My undergraduate is in Creative Writing, with an emphasis on Poetry, from the City University of New York, I primarily chose Hunter College to study with Audre Lorde; but the City University of New York (CUNY) also gave me the opportunity to study at Brooklyn College with Joan Larkin. This was back in the early 80s and I was returning to school for writing because my early desire to write was squelched by family and circumstances. I had to leave home, and had a career as a laboratory technician for fourteen years. When I moved to Seattle, I went back to school for a Masters in Family Therapy, so my first years living here were full.
In 2016, Dustin Brookshire, a poet who edited a journal in Atlanta, invited me to write a piece about my writing history for his blog.
Your poetry seems, to me, to be inextricable from the work you did for many years as a medical HIV/AIDS case manager.
Do you think poetry helped you cope with what must have been a very difficult job?
Yes. I worked in AIDS services for 21 years, 18 of them as a case manager, and writing helped me with the work because any social work evokes secondary trauma, and writing is healing.
This job was a perfect fit because I was in a Family Therapy Master of Arts program at LIOS (Leadership Institute of Seattle), and was looking for work that was meaningful. I wanted to work with people living with HIV/AIDS because I knew I was positive. This job gave me an opportunity to serve a community I was part of and to learn as much as possible, which was one of my goals for self-preservation.
At Hunter, Professor Louise DeSalvo, PhD, became a strong mentor. Two of her books, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, and The Art of Slow Writing, document a psychological study by James Pennebaker, which show that writing heals trauma. In my private practice, I use writing as an assignment to create a new narrative, and to ease loss and grief. There are many interests I've pursued that inform my writing, self-healing, and therapy practice: dreams, body work, herbal and alternative medicine, which I use for myself and with others toward healing.
Do you think your job provided necessary inspiration as a poet?
The work provided a very rich field for persona poems, elegies, and to process emotions and experience. At that time, I was writing for the Health Corner Column, a newsletter for the Babes Network, a peer support organization for women, which I helped found. I wrote articles on how to support the immune system using prevention with food and herbs.
My first AIDS poem came to the page in a Continuum Movement Poetry in Motion Intensive in 1996. The AIDS poems flowed out of me after that intensive, so yes, my work inspired much writing. But I also write on other topics. My second book, No Father Can Save Her, is autobiographical, with many poems on growing up in New York City during the sexual revolution, interracial relationships, grief from the loss of my father, and mental illness.
I believe there are wells inside us to be uncovered. When my mother died last year, I wrote many mother poems; after I traveled to Istanbul I wrote about that experience, my poem "Istanbul Secrets" won 2nd Prize in the InterBoards June 2015 contest, judged blind by Lesley Wheeler; another poem was published this year in the Bosphorus Journal, an English language Turkish journal. Any experience provides fodder for a poet or writer.
Who do you like to read?
Reading has been one of my favorite indulgences since childhood. To make a list in different genres would be way too long, and miss too many good writers, so I'll just give a recent book or so in each category. There are so many excellent writers.
Poets: Most recent is Tara Hardy's book My, My, My, My, My. Before that I read Lana Hechtman Ayers, The Four Quarters, an homage to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets; Tina Schumann's Requiem a Patrimony of Fugues; and Jesse Minkert's chapbook Rookland.
I'm working on a memoir and love to read about people's lives. I'm slowly reading Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran. This is a topic I think about a lot with my recent book revealing my status for the first time publically. Also, David Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, and Tom Hansen's American Junkie. Earlier, Elizabeth Alexander's The Light of the World, which was incredible.
For fiction, Kiese Laymon's Long Division; John Treat's The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, set in Seattle about the early AIDS epidemic; I discovered Richard Wagamese when I visited a friend in Canada and read Ragged Company; I'm looking forward to Amber Dawn's new novel, Sodom Road Exit; and of course anything by Tom Spanbauer or the Dangerous Writers.
And for essays, Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey and Mary Gaitskill's Somebody with a Little Hammer.
In fall 2017, I read along with a class syllabus! Professor Patrick Horrigan taught my book in an English Honors class at Long Island University-Brooklyn. The class, "How to Survive a Plague: Art and Literature in the Age of AIDS," used David France's book, which I had already read. I am deeply honored that my book was taught alongside his. I met with the class through Skype for an hour and forty minutes to answer their 27 questions, which were sent to me in advance. After our time ended, they had more questions, so I responded with a letter. This semester he is teaching, "You Always Hurt the One You Love": A Survey on American Literature, and using individual poems from my book next to Walt Whitman poems written in 1865, when he nursed injured Civil War soldiers. My case management experience during the epidemic is comparable.
I read many books about HIV/AIDS and gay history. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's That's Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation; Martin Duberman's Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS.
For psychology books: I have studied Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. A few authors I've read extensively are Pat Ogden, David Siegel, and Stan Tatkin.
I am active on Goodreads, recording and commenting on books. I mark as "to read" far more books than I'll ever have time to finish. It is a resource that helps me remember books and helps me focus. Like most readers, I have a pile of books waiting to be read and a constant urge to buy more. I've been using the library lately and have stopped cold turkey going to the Friends of the Library sales. With so many writer friends it is hard not to buy books.
You're having a very busy month this month! Can you tell us a little about what you're working on?
This past year I have been busy promoting my book, which came out in April 2017. I gave many readings including one in New York City at the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division, housed in the Lesbian and Gay Center, which is where the LIU professor heard me read. This month I had three readings: one a webinar for Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, one at Soul Food Books for the Ice Cream Anthology, and one at Open Books with Tara Hardy. On April 26th I will read in Portland, OR, at Another Read Through bookstore with Penelope Scambly Schott, and Christopher Luna. Later this summer, July 7th, I will host an Ice Cream Anthology reading at Poetry in the Park (Marymoor).
This year I sent my book out to contests, which has been expensive but fruitful. My book is a Finalist for the Bisexual Book Awards, and for the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award. I'm heading east to attend these two gala events. As a native New Yorker, I'm always thrilled to go back east. Also, it is nominated for The Golden Crown Literary Society Awards.
Truth be bold is a beautiful book with good poetry and a stunning cover. The art is by Duane Kirby Jensen, whose art also graces my second book's cover. I'm grateful to have the perfect art to match my words on all three of my books.
I'm in two writing groups. One has been ongoing since 2003 after a Tom Spanbauer week at Haystack in Cannon Beach, Oregon. We bring prose pages for feedback, which we read out loud; and I am in a poetry critique dyad with a poet who was part of a long-term poetry group. The group dissolved when several members moved.
As my current book promotion energy shifts, I will work on my memoir and pull together another poetry manuscript from my body of published and unpublished poems, diving into the process to find the themes and arch that makes a book. So, I have two more books to develop.
Do you see a difference between the performance of poetry and the writing of poetry, or do you write the pieces to be read aloud?
Writing is a physical act, it is embodied, so I read my work out loud. Writing is meant to be voiced and heard. When I revise I read my poem out loud over and over to get the rhythm coming through that particular poem. After I did my first "Poetry in Motion" movement intensive I loved it so much I ran workshops for ten years including a series at Cancer Lifeline. So yes, writing poetry is connected to the verbal: in the workshops, breath and audible breath (sound) is used to alter our internal space and then see what evolves. It is hand-to-page work so the line and images are as important as the writing that comes because in is energy in the body that is moving.
Do you have any performance idols?
My performance idols are Patricia Smith, Anne Devere Smith, and Tara Hardy. I took a performance workshop with Tara at a Poetry in the Park years ago.
Before I left New York, an actor friend coached me in reading to an audience. I appreciate feedback to improve my readings, and believe writers needs oratory skills to do their work justice. I remember the first time I read at Elliott Bay you commented that I had reading skills. And I did. I do not take reading my work lightly because it is how the work is felt, people need to hear it and respond at a gut level. Audre Lorde would ask after someone read, "How do you feel?" I'm aware I can improve, I tend to have a low voice, so I prefer to read with a microphone.
Alan LaMont, the owner of Ballard's The Grumpy Old Man's Comics, Art, and Collectibles doesn't come across as a grumpy old man. He's downright chipper, in fact, and he's got the youthful vigor and charm of someone who's finally living a life he's been dreaming about for decades.
After years "working in corporate America" in Rochester New York and dreaming of the Pacific Northwest, LaMont finally moved to Seattle on Labor Day of 2017. He brought his enormous, high-quality comics collection - about 200 boxes - along with him, and he set about fulfilling another longtime dream: opening a comic shop/art gallery. LaMont has some experience working in a gallery, and he's attended comics conventions his whole life, but he'd never owned a space before. "I didn't want to work for a company anymore," LaMont says, "so I thought I'd combine the two things that I love." The store officially opened on the day after Thanksgiving.
LaMont is an artist. He paints as a hobby, but he has primarily worked in linocut art since he was 12. (A whole wall at Grumpy Old Man's Comics displays his work for sale.) He likes the way linocut changes his thought process: in order to create good prints "you have to think mirrored and positive-to-negative." It took him a long time to get into the mindset of a linocut artist, but now "I have a clear thought process."
That explains the gallery part, but why a comic book store? "I learned how to read on comics," LaMont explains. His grandmother was a teacher, and when she noticed his love of superhero cartoons, she bought him a batch of comics and helped him work through them. "She had me reading at four years of age," LaMont says. He's been reading comics ever since.
Grumpy Old Man's Comics is located right off Market Street. The shop is split into three distinct rooms. When you walk in, you're standing in the middle of the room with new and recent comics. To your left is a room of classic and collectible comics, ranging all the way back to the 1960s. And to the right is the gallery, with affordable prints and a rotating display of artists. The shop is an eager participant in both Ballard Art Walk, on the second Saturday of the month, and Ballard Night Out every third Thursday.
LaMont is thrilled with the response the comics side of the business has seen since he opened. When he started the shop, LaMont says, "I was thinking that probably the artwork side of it would be the easier sell of the two, and that it would take a while to get my comic book business built up. It's proven to be the opposite," he says. "The comics are already on the verge of carrying the business."
Grumpy Old Man's offers discounts of up to 30 percent for subscribers, and LaMont is developing a regular clientele. Some of the new subscribers are likely orphans of Seattle comics-shop attrition: Ballard hasn't had a comics shop since Arcane Comics moved to Shoreline a couple years ago, and downtown's Zanadu Comics closed last month.
LaMont wants curious Seattleites to know that Grumpy Old Man's is "a rather eclectic mix of things, not a typical comics store and not a typical art gallery." To draw in more new customers, the store is having a sizable back issue sale on Saturday, March 31st from 10 am to 6 pm. There's something for everyone in the shop: LaMont is creating a space where different styles of art - disparate styles that fifty years ago would have been dismissed as "low" and lauded as "high" - can live under the same roof.
Last week, Greenwood bookstore Couth Buzzard launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $9,500 in order to keep the store going. Owner Theo Dzielak announced that the store needed the money to address "sharp increases in rent, license fees and taxes, supporting our employees with fair wages, the effects of new health and environmental regulations, the ongoing need to repair and replace aging equipment, and many other costs."
The store is now more than halfway to the goal. I called Dzielak to discuss the campaign and the Buzzard's future. "I'm happy with the way it's going," Dzielak tells me. Even though "it's not the easiest thing to do to ask for money," he admits, "we've been building community for a long time and I knew people would step up."
Finding items to sell for the fundraiser was easy, Dzielak says. "A number of local authors stepped forward and donated copies of their books: Peter Mountford, Nick Licata, and David Shields. I know a lot of local artists and they donated paintings and pottery - they all stepped forward and said 'how can we help?'"
Dzielak notes that sales at the Couth Buzzard increased last year, and continue to climb. The money from the GoFundMe will help the Buzzard invest back into the store to meet the customer demand. For years, Buzzard has carried a mixture of used and new books. Over the last few years, customers have gravitated more toward the new titles, and Dzielak intends to invest in a larger collection of new books to make his stock more relevant. Additionally, the funds will support "bringing new products to the café and support other advertising and increase the slate of events."
Owning a bookstore and community center, Dzielak says, is "an experiment every day." He's proud of the Buzzard's loaded events schedule, which includes book clubs, open mics, musical performances, and readings. This Saturday, the Buzzard is hosting a cabaret tribute to Ursula K. LeGuin featuring Scott Katz, Jeffrey Robert, Lydia Swartz, David Fewster, Matt Price, Arni Adler and Kathleen Tracy. Dzielak is also looking forward to the launch party for Sibyl James's new book Hard Goods & Hot Platters on March 22nd. The wide variety of events, Dzielak says, confirms that the Buzzard is "not just a bookstore. It's a community where art is made."
Love and Rockets co-creator Jaime Hernandez is a guest at Emerald City Comic Con this weekend, but he can't visit Seattle without a visit to his lifelong publisher, Fantagraphics Books. This Saturday at 7 pm, Hernandez will be signing books and talking with fans at a free event in the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown to celebrate the release of a deluxe artist edition portfolio highlighting his creative process as a cartoonist.
Hernandez's latest Love and Rockets collection, Angels and Magpies, continues the story of the popular characters he's been writing and drawing since 1981, but it also brings something new to the equation. Hernandez spends an extended sequence in the book on a superhero adventure with all the trappings - spandex, capes, fistfights, creepy demons, powers, the works.
"The superhero story came about because we had changed formats," Hernandez tells me over the phone. "We changed the size of [Love and Rockets] and I needed to fill 50 pages in a year. I had never done it all at once, before," he said. The superhero comic was originally intended to be "just a side project," he says, but he worked it into the larger Love and Rockets story.
Hernandez's enthusiasm for the story is apparent on every single page of the book. "It kind of wrote itself," Hernandez says. "I was having a lot of fun. I guess you could say it was kind of a new approach."
When I ask if Gary Groth - Fantagraphics Books' publisher and an avowed hater of mainstream superhero comics - would have published these superhero strips back in the 1990s, when Groth was most avidly raging against the machine, Hernandez laughs. "I think he would, yeah," he says. Groth, Hernandez says, has always given Hernandez and his brother Gilbert a wide berth in their Love and Rockets work. Groth "doesn't step on our toes that way. If we do something a little oddball and he doesn't like it, I just don't hear from him for a couple years."
Is Hernandez content to keep working on Love and Rockets comics? I bring up Peter Bagge, a contemporary of the Hernandez brothers who has found a successful and surprising second act as a biographer of important women in history. Does Hernandez have any books that he'd like to work on outside of the world he's created?
"I prefer to stay in my little universe and help the characters grow old," he tells me. "If there's anything I want to tackle, it usually will fit in there. I'm getting older, you know, and I just want to see what happens with my characters. And so I concentrate on them as real people and try to figure out, 'okay, what are you going to be at 60?'"
Hernandez says he's fully committed to his characters, but he still experiences a lot of doubt as an artist. "Every issue I draw, I have to have a hate period in there where I can't get through it. I have to argue with myself: 'is this worth it? Is this worth everyone's time? Is this worth my time? Is this good art?' And part of me is going, 'no it ain't, old man.'"
In the end, Hernandez says, "I come to this compromise with the five people in my head and then I say, 'okay, it's good enough - or good enough for now."
"Next time I'll get it right," he says.
"I started writing poetry in eighth grade," our February Poet in Residence, Azura Tyabji, tells me over the phone. She'd always considered herself a writer - she wrote and assembled her own books as a child, and she participated in the school paper as soon as she could - but "I never really considered myself a poet." It was an assignment to read a poem in a student showcase that inspired her. She credits her language arts teachers for "validating that yes, what I was writing was, in fact, poetry, and that it deserved an audience."
Tyabji continued to write poetry, but a couple years after her first reading, she became involved with the local writing organization Youth Speaks, and then everything became clear. At first, she attended a poetry slam and she found the competitive atmosphere to be too intimidating to participate, "but then I went to an open mic and it was one of the most welcoming, beautiful, nurturing communities that I'd ever witnessed. And I decided I want to join this beautiful community and give back to it and be a part of it." She's been a part of Youth Speaks ever since.
Ask Tyabji what poets she's reading right now and she enthusiastically supplies a list of names. "Locally, Tara Hardy is someone that I've been reading again and again and again, and I just want to see Anastacia-Renee speak at the Seattle Public Library." The two poets inspire Tyabji as performers, as writers, and as people. "I'm just in awe of how they craft their imagery and I think that they both really have this whimsical style that I hope to learn from," she says. And she reads the work of Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna "whenever I want to be inspired to observe my city."
Nationally, Tyabji is a big fan of spoken word artist Olivia Gatwood, whose 2017 collection New American Best Friend is a big influence on her work. "She writes very intimately about girlhood - she writes about period panties, and she has a poem called 'Ode to my Bitch Face.' She's so bold in how she describes and prioritizes girls." From Gatwood, Tyabji is learning how to "uplift women and girls to fight against shame."
Tyabji is a writer on the verge of a big shift. She's graduating high school this June, and she's staying in Seattle for her gap year before heading to a college that is "probably out of state." Is she concerned about leaving her community behind? "I'll be really sad to let Youth Speaks Seattle go when it is my time to leave," she says. "But I know that the community here will keep growing and keep preserving itself and also find new paths, and I can always come back and visit."
She has no doubt that she'll be able to find a community of poets no matter where she goes. "What I've learned for myself is that I can't write poetry alone. I'm always absorbing what other people have taught me, and I think that's how we all work as poets: absorbing and is being influenced by each other," Tyabji says.
But no matter where she ends up, Tyabji knows where her roots are. "I consider myself a Seattle poet," she says. "Not just because I was born here and grew up here, but because I try to write about my city, especially with how it's changing, how it's being transformed into a city that's not necessarily friendly to the same people that have lived here for a long time," both through gentrification and institutional racism.
"But I'm trying to challenge myself to write about what I love about the city. Yesterday I just watched a poem by Laura 'Piece' Kelly called 'Central District.'," Tyabji says. "She writes so lovingly about her community in the Central District and about growing up in Seattle, and that's something I want to challenge myself to remember as well: although the city has so many things that it needs to work on, there is beauty in it as well."
Tyabji sets a lot of goals for herself. She wants to do writing residencies, and publish a chapbook, and learn how to teach poetry. She's currently starting to co-teach a class on slam poetry at her high school, and she says "I can't wait to see what I'll discover about my own work when I teach others."
When Tyabji reads her own work, she radiates an air of confidence that many poets twice her age will never be able to muster. What's her secret? "When I'm preparing to share a poem for the first time, I really sit down with what I have written and I read it over - in my head first and then out loud."
As her own first audience, she says, "I read the poem until I really am confident that this piece brings me joy." And it's important "when you're sharing your work with other people to go somewhere where you're surrounded by people that love you unconditionally. Find your community - even if it's small. I'm really blessed to have the Youth Speaks community, and we really give love to every poet."
Tyabji likes to remember that all poets have anxiety about their work. "We're never going to get to a point where we're not anxious, where we're a hundred percent confident about anything. I could choose to despair over that fact, or I can use it as a motivator," she says.
"I think it's great that I will never be perfect," Tyabji says. "I think I can learn so much from that. I can always keep challenging myself."
A little over a week ago, I moderated a panel on DIY culture for Literary Career Day at the Seattle Public Library downtown. The panel conversation was between myself, author Jeffrey Cheatham of the Seattle Urban Book Expo, and poet Rita Wirkala of Seattle Escribe, but many of the dozens of young aspiring authors in the room took part in the conversation, which covered a wide array of topics.
Cheatham talked about his surprising success with the first Urban Book Expo, and his current attempts to turn the festival into "an actual movement, a culture" that represents writers and readers of color in Seattle. Wirkala discussed her history as a writer and a publisher and a published poet, as well as her work with Escribe, which she describes as an organization featuring readings, "classes, and workshops for people who are writing" in the Seattle area.
Most of the questions centered around how they manged to build a community, and how they kept the community going once it got started. Wirkala said "I'm not very good at finding people, but people have found me" because she kept herself available as a publisher and a writer. Putting her name out and maintaining a presence in the city meant that like-minded could easily find her. As to maintaining the community, she attributes that to the "self-generated energy" created when "you find people who are on the same wavelength and you fit with them."
Cheatham said when he created the first Expo, he went on a listening tour. "I listened to potential clients, because they'll tell you what you're looking for when they go to events," and then he took it upon himself to "mold the show to fit what they wanted." And in order to more than double the size of the second Expo, he says he kept his ears open after the first one. "I just listened to my customers. They told me what they wanted."
Putting on an event is hard work, Cheatham notes, but if you listen and create a space, people "as human beings want to find something they can call their own and work together on." Everyone's looking for their people, and they're willing to work to keep their community together.
Those groups are important for writers and publishers, Wirkala agreed, because "when you write, or when you're engaging with work, you are too close to it as an idea. You always need somebody to help you" gain some distance from the work. "And you learn a lot from other people who are in the same field. That's really important," she added.
Earlier this month, Lisa Rosenblum had her first day on the job as the King County Library System Director. Rosenblum has worked in libraries across the country, but she’s taking the helm of an especially vibrant library system in KCLS.
King County Library System seems well-positioned for the future. Last year, digital reading platform Overdrive announced that King County led the nation in digital book checkouts, ahead of the systems for Los Angeles, New York, and even Seattle. In 2017, KCLS users checked out over four and a half million ebooks and digital audiobooks, but physical media hasn’t been left behind in the digital gold rush—over ten million visitors checked in to KCLS’s 49 branches, and they checked out some sixteen million non-digital-book items.
We talked on the phone with Rosenblum last week, to get a sense of where she’s from and what she wants to do at KCLS. The following transcript has been lightly edited.
What brought you into this line of work, and how you came to be interested in libraries? Do you have a librarian superhero origin story?
Well, I know you’re hoping for a romantic story, but I'm afraid mine came from a recession. I went to this fancy liberal arts school back east, called St. John's College, which is a great book school that gives you a liberal arts education in the most traditional sense — you study Ancient Greek, and you translate Sophocles, and you read the plays in the original language. It was an amazing education. But I got out during a time where there were no jobs, especially for overeducated liberal arts majors.
So, I started working. I got a job at a government contractor that provided library services to Army libraries. This was outside of Washington DC. Then, from there, I moved to Houston, married my husband, and got a job at Rice University, doing what we called, back then, cataloging. I knew from that point on that I never wanted to be a cataloger, because we had to file cards. I don't know how old you are, but I’m old enough to remember cards and card files.
Oh, sure. Yeah.
So, the big deal was, if you were good, you could drop your own cards. You know the little rods that went through the holes in the cards?
Well, when you did it correctly, you were allowed to pull out the little pole, have the cards drop down, and then the pole went through the hole in the bottom of the card, and that was it.
At Rice University, you were only allowed to do that if you never made a mistake filing. Well, in two years working there, I never could figure it out. I always had one or two mistakes, so I was never able to drop my own cards. So, long story short, I knew that this level of detail work was not my strong point.
So, fast-forward: we leave Houston, we're in California. Back then, California was hiring librarians without library degrees if they took tests, and I said, 'I'll never pass.' My husband encourages me: 'Oh, just take the test. Take the test.' So, I did, and I failed miserably on anything librarian-ish. But remember I told you I had that fancy liberal arts education? Well, I could match the author with the title of all these old Greek and Latin and Roman works, so I passed the test. Then I had an interview, and I got the job as a librarian.
I really loved it in the public library. This was before the internet. I really enjoyed helping people find answers, find information. This is back when these big reference books were behind us, and we could pull them down and find the answers to questions like, what was the average temperature in Prague in August? You just felt so empowered. I also was a youth librarian, and I did book talks. I'd go out to schools and talk about books in a very entertaining way, summarize them very dramatically.
So, I really learned to love the public library, and that's kind of how I got into it. It wasn't like I woke up one day and said, ‘I want to be a librarian.’ It wasn't that I met a librarian when I was in high school or when I was in elementary school and she made an impact. In fact, back then, librarians, I thought, were kind of mean. And they also would separate the children's areas from the adult's, so if you were a kid you were kind of isolated from things.
That's really how I got to be a librarian. From there, I progressively started to enjoy what I was doing. I worked for a big system, did basically everything in it, and then decided I wanted to be a director. I got a couple of different jobs as a director — including the last one as the director of the Brooklyn Public Library. Every time, I just really enjoyed what we do in our communities. I think that we really are very impactful and have done a great job in changing with what our community needs. The library I entered into more than 25 years ago is different than the one that we run now, but it's still the same. We still value books and reading and literacy, but we just do it in a different way, that's all.
So you mentioned Washington DC and Houston and California. Where are you from originally?
I originally was born in New Jersey, on the East Coast. Then, when I was 12, we moved to Virginia because my dad got a new job. Then, like the pioneers, I gradually made my way out west. I lived in California for most of my career, but I took up the opportunity to work for Brooklyn, because they recruited me.
So, I did that for two and a half years, and I decided that as much as I like New York, I'm a West Coast girl now.
And, of course, the King County Library System is known nationally as one of the best in the country.
I wanted to ask you what drew you to apply for the job at King County.
Well, first of all, King County has a national reputation of public support for libraries, and building beautiful libraries, and being really innovative. We were hearing about King County in California 20 years ago, when Bill Ptacek, the beloved leader of KCLS, had the insight to realize we were in the materials movement business. He knew we needed — this is back before digital — to be more efficient in how we move our materials around our system, and created that huge sorting machine in Preston. They've always been ahead of their time, and the community support for libraries is very desirable.
Plus, living here, this is a wonderful place. Or so I’ve heard. Because I've come at the worst of times, I'm told. It's dark when I go to work, it's dark when I leave. So I'm told this is a beautiful area, I just have to wait a couple of months.
Fortunately, I moved here from Brooklyn and not California. I think the change from California would have been too much for me, but I left in a blizzard from Brooklyn, so I’m used to variations in weather.
What are you reading right now?
Well, right now, I'm reading the classifieds to see where I can buy a condo here. I have to be honest with you, I have not been reading a lot since I moved here a week and a half ago. But, the last book I read was Manhattan Beach [by Jennifer Egan]. In Brooklyn, one of our libraries was in Manhattan Beach.I am very interested in reading regionally. I can't tell you what my favorite Seattle regional authors are, I'll be honest with you, but I'm looking forward to discovering them. The other nice thing about moving from Brooklyn to here is that New York City, in general, is a big reading community, and Seattle is too. So, it's great to go from one place to the other. People really like to read here.
Do you have people putting together a list of King County authors to check out, now that you're here?
Well, you know, I haven't asked them to do that. I've asked them to create a map of where all my libraries are. I'm starting there. But that's really a great idea.
I’ll be a patron and ask for a list of the 10 best books I should start reading to learn about Seattle.
Oh, man. If you'd like to come back and share that experience, I would love to talk to you about that, too. That sounds great. I know you haven't been to all of the libraries yet, are there any of the libraries that you think are especially nice in the King County region?
It's like asking who's my favorite child. Let me just say this: I'm very interested in the Skykomish library, the one that I can't get to in the winter.
I'm interested in that one because, first of all, it's in a beautiful area of the state, but, also, it really represents how important a rural library is to a community. It's got limited hours, but it's important that it's out there, that it's open for people. So, that's sort of my adventure library.
I'm starting to visit libraries this week. We're putting in a new maker space area in Bellevue, so that's going to be fun to go to in the next couple of weeks. We're basically creating a space where teens can create things. There'll be laser printers, and there'll be maker machines, and all sorts of stuff.
Oh, and I want to go to Vashon because I think it's so cool I have to take a ferry to get to one of my libraries.
So, yes, I'm looking forward to those, but those are kind of the cool adventure libraries. But, in general, I can't pick a favorite because the design of our libraries here is really amazing. Just the light — the recognition that it gets dark [in this part of the world] and just having all the light, even under the shelving, so that everything is so bright when you come in. It's very thoughtful. Our voters supported us to build new libraries and to renovate the existing ones, and I think we gave them a good bang for the buck here.
Do you have any priorities for your first few months at King County other than visiting the libraries?
Visiting, certainly. As I visit, I’ll be meeting with the staff. Also learning about the board, and working with the board.
And, of course, it's all about the budget — understanding the budget process, and really looking at the budget. How do we spend our money? What could we be doing differently? Just all the sort of basic stuff you do when you start a job.
I also said to the staff today, ‘when I'm visiting your libraries, I want the full King County experience. So where are the best coffee shops, the bakeries near where you are? Where would you go to lunch?’ I love to learn about the neighborhoods where our libraries are too, because they're all very different.
It just occurred to me that the Literary Lions fundraiser for the King County Library System Foundation is coming up in March. Are you going to be at that? Can people meet you there, if they attend the dinner?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I need to find a dress for that.
What have you learned in your meetings with the staff? You have some great librarians out there in the King County system — I know from experience. Is there anything that the staff has really impressed you with, or is there anything that you learned that surprised you?
Well, first of all, I think our librarians are wonderful, but I also think our support staff — the people behind them, the people that are on the floor, that aren't librarians, our circulation people — are great. I think what impresses me is their service philosophy. They really love working with the public and serving them in the way they need to, and in a changing way.
I had a meeting this morning with staff that is very interested in how we're serving our diverse communities. They're interested in social equity. They really keep abreast on what's current in the library field, and what makes the most sense here. They're passionate about what they do. They're very, very passionate about their love of the profession and serving the public.