Our September Poet in Residence, Sierra Golden, is at the very beginning of what looks to be a long and important career in poetry. Her debut collection, The Slow Art, was just published this month by Bear Star Press, but she writes with the confidence and the economy of a poet twice her age. This is not something you see in a young poet: Golden inherently understands that what you don't say in a poem is just as important as what you do say, if not more.
"I was always the student who was interested in poetry, from elementary school through high school," Golden tells me over coffee. But she didn't consider herself a poet until college, when she took a workshop with former Washington state poet laureate Tod Marshall. "I still think it's the best workshop I've ever had," she says.
The first piece Golden turned in for the workshop was a poem about fishing. "I spent eight summers working in a commercial fishing boat in southeast Alaska," she explains, "and that became the focal point of most of my writing for a really long time."
Golden is from a fishing family in rural Washington state — her dad has worked as a commercial fisherman for four decades — and when she worked salmon season one summer to pay for school, "I fell in love with it — just being outside, doing something that gives you really immediate feedback. Either you catch or you don't."
The "eternal optimism amongst fishermen" culturally spoke to Golden, but when she was out on the water, she also felt "an elemental connection to the natural world," and that connection gave her a sense that she had a place in that world. Poetry, then, is how she learned to communicate all these elemental emotions. She loves the form for its way of "condensing life into something small and measurable and meaningful and musical."
Her early influences include Sharon Olds, Jack Gilbert, and (on the more contemporary side) Matthew Dickman. Her reading inspired her to pursue an MFA in poetry at North Carolina State University. Golden wasn't sure at that time if she'd be a poet, but "I knew that [the MFA] would be formative and I knew that if I didn't do it then, I might not ever do it."
After moving to Seattle, Golden felt more and more comfortable thinking about herself as a writer. She took a job as a communications associate at an important local nonprofit. "Working at Casa Latina has probably been more affirming than anything else" in terms of helping Golden think of herself as a writer "because I do a lot of the external writing for them. The staff has been very supportive and flexible over the last four years so that I can work on personal projects."
Seattle has embraced her. Golden was selected for Hugo House's Made at Hugo program, which provides educational and resource support for a cohort of young writers. She finds inspiration and draws strength from many Seattle authors including Anastacia Renée, Daemond Arrindell, Elizabeth Austen, and David Wagoner, and she thinks "more people need to know" Bellingham author Nancy Pagh, a creative writing teacher at Western — particularly her book No Sweeter Fat.
Golden is still coming to terms with herself as a Seattle writer. As much as she loves the city, "I still crave a smaller, quieter, less fast" lifestyle like the one she had growing up in rural Washington. She's branching out into other forms, too. "I'm working on a novel," Golden says, "which I never thought I would do and was never interested in."
Still, Golden is getting "the itch" to return to poetry. Writing about fishing, she says, "made me feel like I was cheating or something because it's so visceral and it's really easy to write about it." While the poems in The Slow Art at times feel like journalism, her "next challenge," she says, "is going to be how to write about something less concrete that has the same meaning." Considering all that Golden has accomplished so far, it's obvious that she'll find her way. She always does.
Caitlin Luce Baker is one of Seattle's very best booksellers and one of the most avid readers in the city. She works as a backlist buyer at University Book Store, which she helpfully explains to me over the phone means she's in charge of making sure the bookstore carries "the books that came out last week, and the books that came out fifty years ago." Caitlin frequently represents the city at national programs — she's currently a judge of the 2018 Best Translated Books Awards — and she always reads months into the future.
"I probably read 12 to 15 books a month on average," Caitlin says, and she tracks every book she reads by noting them on three-by-five inch index cards. All those books you're dying to read this fall? Caitlin probably read most of them months ago. (She's an excellent Twitter follow as well.)
So what fall titles are Caitlin most excited for you to read? The first book she recommends is a short story collection by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah called Friday Black, which Caitlin says "blew me away. He's a dramatic new voice," she says, and "there's not a weak story in the bunch."
Caitlin calls another upcoming collection, Toddler Hunting and Other Stories, by Taeko Kono, "unsettling and obsessive." The title story, she says, "is about a woman who loathes little girls, but is always buying expensive clothing for little boys of acquaintances." Kono is interested in crossing boundaries and violating taboos, and Caitlin warns that "each story in this collection is dynamite."
"Absolutely one of my favorites" of the upcoming fall titles, Caitlin says, is a novel titled Samuel Johnson's Eternal Return, by Martin Riker. It's "the story of a father's love for his son" that "traces the history of television in America." At the beginning of the book, everyone watches the same three or four channels, but by the end those choices have fragmented into "a zillion channels," which results in a kind of loss of community.
Another novel that was just published yesterday, The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling, looks at another angle of parenting. "It's a road trip novel, but it's different — it's a road trip with a 16-month old baby," Caitlin says. The book is about a woman whose husband is Turkish, but "due to US policy and visa issues, he's back in Turkey." Life as a single mother becomes overwhelming, and "she takes off in her Buick to a small town in California," where "she meets a woman who lived in Turkey when she was younger." Caitlin especially admires this book for its timely investigation of "questions of American immigration."
Caitlin calls Mina, a novel out on October 10th by Kim Sagwa and translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, "one of the rawest and most honest depictions of what it's like to be a teenager" that she's ever read. "This book takes it to extremes," she says. "There's a screaming kitten on the cover. I don't want anyone to pick up this book because it has a cute cat on the cover — that cat is screaming for a reason," Caitlin warns. "This book kind of blew me away."
The fall brings with it some vivid first-person accounts that will open readers up to new perspectives. One of the titles that most appeals personally to Caitlin is Shaun Bythell's Diary of a Bookseller. "It is hysterical," Caitlin says. "Anything that anyone ever wanted to know about what a bookseller really thinks is in here." It's about the owner of a bookshop (named The Bookshop) in Scotland and his relationships with customers.
As much as she loved Bythell's memoir, Caitlin says of Nicole Chung's All You Can Ever Know, "if you read one memoir this year, read this one." She says the language in the book, which is about Chung's experience as a Korean girl who was adopted by a white family in a lily-white Oregon town, is "beautiful." Chung took the solitude of growing up where "no one around her looked like her" and channeled it into an intense memoir that investigates race and identity.
After talking on the phone with Caitlin about upcoming releases for a half an hour, she sent me a followup email with upcoming poetry titles that she wants people to know about — The Carrying by Ada Limón and feeld by Jos Charles, both from Milkweed; and Perennial by Kelly Forsythe from Coffee House. Her exuberance for the titles is infectious. For the better part of a year now, she's been waiting for readers to be able to get their hands on these books, and finally the time has arrived. For a dedicated bookseller like Caitlin, fall book season is one of the very best times of the year.
I've been following Elizabeth Austen's work for years now — from her early chapbooks to her 2012 debut collection Every Dress a Decision, from her role as Washington state's third Poet Laureate to her role as a poetry correspondent for KUOW. Her poetry has always been accessible enough to capture a reader's immediate attention, but durable enough to reward multiple readings with new discoveries. She's a complex writer who constructs levels in all her poems.
The four poems Austen contributed to the Seattle Review of Books this month as our Poet in Residence, though, feel different somehow. It's not that Austen doesn't sound like herself — that voice is as clear and confident as ever — but the rhythms of the poems feel different, and there's a mystery to the new work that departs from her previously published material.
On the phone, Austen admits to being "relieved" when I ask her if there's a difference between her new and her old work "because they seem different to me. And I want them to be different." But she's not entirely clear on what the difference is, either.
In many ways, Austen is just recovering from her time as Poet Laureate — a role that awkwardly fuses the sociability of a politician with the introspection of a poet. Austen was a tremendous advocate for local poets and a very effective conduit between ordinary Washingtonians and the literary arts. But she says her two years in office were "draining in a way that I don't think was possible to anticipate." Austen says she "loved" being Poet Laureate and "I was grateful to get to do it," but she confesses that "I needed about two years of quiet" when her term was over.
Of course, nothing has been quiet about the last two years. Austen says her newer work is "partly dictated by the times we live in." Since 2016, she's been "feeling silenced by my own sense that poetry seems an incredibly paltry response to the state of the world."
This isn't just about a Seattleite despairing at Trump's election. Austen says her poetry was silenced in the face of "the resurgence of something ugly that I thought was a lot closer to its deathbed: overt racism, overt misogyny, this incredible xenophobia and anti-immigrant insanity."
After months of feeling helpless, Austen says she came to terms with her responsibility as a poet: "I finally just gave in and realized that it may be paltry, but it's what I have to offer."
As a reader of poetry, Austen says, her needs have changed. "I need poems that speak to the moment we're living in," that provide a context to modern American life as part of a continuum of history. Who does she read for inspiration? "Danez Smith and Terrance Hayes are two poets that are just continually rocking my world in terms of what they managed to do with the clarity and imagination with which they're meeting the moment." She credits Ada Limón for being "willing to hold the heartbreak of moment."
But in order to find her inner voice again, Austen has had to reach outside herself. "It feels very practical when I bring poems to groups of people who, for example, do palliative care or who work with people who are unhoused," she says. (In her day job, Austen works as the senior content strategist at Seattle Children's Hospital.) "The value of poetry feels very urgent and very tangible to me because I see it through the eyes of people who don't have the kind of everyday access to poetry that I do." By sharing poetry with people who are experiencing grief and trauma, Austen remembers why poetry matters.
And what does she do when she actually needs to sit down and write? Since 2016, she says, "the big change in my process is that I do most of my initial drafts now with one other writer in the room with me. I meet once a month with Kathleen Flenniken and once a month with Susan Rich." The poets coax each other along the creative process. "We give each other prompts, we do timed writing, and then we read aloud whatever we wrote. That's how a lot of my new poems have started, really, for the last two years."
That support network has helped Austen immeasurably. "In many ways, the two of them kind of carried me through a time of feeling like I really had kind of forgotten how to write."
The new process is definitely having an effect on her work. "I'm very purposefully trying to set up situations where something will arise that is beyond my conscious control. Where my first book had a very definite narrative spine that was clearly autobiographical, I'm trying to do something here that is probably much more ambitious."
You can see that in the poems Austen has published with us this month. "Shall Not Be Infringed," she says, came during an exercise when the poets exchange the end lines of poems. Borrowing words from another poet "pushed me in a particular direction," Austen explains. "I followed where they went and at the end of it realized something I had been percolating about, and probably even dreaming about."
Her poem "[ ]" is "an experiment" in "how much I can leave unsaid and infer and leave room for the reader." This poem, along with several others in the manuscript Austen's working on, grapple with "a kind of hideous, cyclical mess to certain kinds of news — certainly news of shootings." She says "I wanted to convey that sense that there are so many different names that could go in those brackets."
Finally, Austen seems able to communicate what's different about her new work: "I'm a lot more willing to include in the poem things I can't rationally account for." She wants to capture something that is "a little bit beyond my reach." All of Austen's new poems interact with that energy, that mystery, that gap between reality and aspiration. At a moment in which poetry felt weak and ineffectual, Austen started down a path that led her to an exciting new strength.
Keith Gessen's second novel, A Terrible Country is funny and thoughtful and more than a little bit sad. It's about a young man who returns to his ancestral home of Russia to take care of his dementia-addled grandmother, and like any great novel, it contains a multitude of perspectives and concepts — smuggled away in the fiction you'll find dialogues about capitalism versus communism and little reviews of Tolstoy's lesser novels and meaningful critiques of United States foreign policy in the 21st century. It's a masterful novel — one that will rightfully stand near the top of most year-end best-of lists.
Unfortunately, Gessen published A Terrible Country at a point in our history in which everyone wants to talk about Russia only in one context: the election of Donald Trump. When Gessen appeared at Elliott Bay Book Company earlier this month, we talked at length about Russia and the United States. What follows is an edited excerpt of our discussion.
You started writing this book at a time when the United States had a very different relationship with Russia, when people here didn't really think about Russia at all. And of course now, after the 2016 elections, you can't go on Twitter without bumping into a liberal Democrat who is putting together a wild conspiracy theory about how Russia hand-picked Donald Trump at birth as the central figure in a long-term plot to overthrow the U.S. We've got kind of a new Red Scare going on. Can you talk about writing the book at a difficult period in US/Russia relations and publishing the book in the US under President Trump?
When I started writing [A Terrible Country] in 2009, Russia was not a hot topic. I kept writing it and writing it and then Russia invaded Ukraine and everybody was super-interested in Russia. And I was like, 'fuck! I should have finished this book because everybody cares about Russia all of a sudden!'
But lucky for me, they interfered in our elections, so people still care about Russia! It's a double-edged sword, right? Because I had written this book that actually complicates the narrative about Russia, and at the same time I think I'm benefiting from the fact that people want to talk to me because they want to talk about how evil Putin is. So it's tricky, but it's also an opportunity.
People are so desperate to know. I wrote this thing in the New York Times Magazine about American policymakers who worked on Russia going back to 1981. It was a very niche piece about policy. It was very wonky. My wife refused to read it — and she's very nice, very supportive, but she's like, 'this is too boring for me.' And yet, it was published because people are so desperate to read about Russia.
The other tricky thing about Trump/Russia that I can tell you as a person who knows about Russia is that Russians aren't that good at doing stuff. I had an event last night in DC with Olga Oliker, who is a very smart, funny political scientist. And this question came up and she said the myth of Russian competence does not survive a meeting with actual Russians.
So these weren't super-geniuses, but they happened to come upon a incredibly divided country whose institutions were breaking down, and whose one party was willing to take advantage of this.
One of the things I learned from one of the Trump/Russia books is that Mitch McConnell — when the Obama administration was trying to really raise the alarm [about Russian interference in the election] but not do it in a partisan manner, they were trying to get the Republican leadership on board. They wanted to warn the state electoral boards that they should be thinking about how to secure their machines. McConnell said, "nope, not doing this. You can't do this. I will raise hell."
So I kind of feel like every time Time magazine wants to publish a cover with a headline about "the face of evil" and there's a picture of Putin, I think that if they just replaced that picture with a photo of McConnell, I would be much happier. That would make much more sense.
So yeah, for me he Trump/Russia story is really a Trump story — Trump and the GOP.
Every once in a while a new figure bursts through the walls of Seattle literary scene like some kind of superhero. The most recent shaker-upper, Kate Berwanger, founded the Assembly Literary Open Mic, a twice-monthly cross-town reading event that happens on the first Wednesday of each month at Screwdriver Bar in Belltown, and the third Wednesday of each month at Corvus and Co. on Capitol Hill.
But two readings a month weren't enough for Berwanger. She then launched a twice-yearly DIY show called Spring for Zines! and Fall for Zines! And that's just the beginning: Berwanger also launched a Kickstarter to present an ambitious slate of readings across Seattle all year long. She's interested in hosting women-fronted events that feature DIY and emerging literary artists.
Berwanger took some time out of her incredibly busy schedule to talk about her love of events and what she's working on right now. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion. If you'd like to support Berwanger's work, her Kickstarter is running for three more days.
I know you have your story on your website, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your journey as a writer?
I've been writing for two decades — mostly short fiction. And I guess I don't really have a need to play the game. I'm not interested in seeking out a publisher, and being on the New York Times bestseller list and stuff like that. I self-publish my own fiction because I like keeping it DIY and grassroots. I would rather just have a dedicated handful of people that care about what I write, I suppose.
What is it about events that you like? Can you talk about the first event where you realized, 'I want to do this for the long haul?'
I think the first really big thing I did was a zine release party a year ago. I loved getting a group of people together who may not have gotten together on their own. And there are a lot of writers who aren't published who have a lot of really amazing things to say. Seattle has so much fucking talent, and I want to showcase that.
It sounds like for you, hosting events is a way to create community.
Yeah. Writing is solitary. But there's a lot of cross pollinating that happens when you have indie events, because you bring in different artists or readers who have a different following who may not have met each other otherwise. This is how we make friends and this is how we cultivate community — by building together on top of what already exists.
What do you think Seattle could do to improve that spirit of community?
It's not necessarily one cohesive community here. For writers, it's a disjointed Venn diagram where there's a bunch of — I don't want to call them cliques, but there's a lot of small communities and they all bunch together.
Founding Assembly has been a really incredible experience, because there are so many platforms that exist for performative work or spaces for people to share polished pieces. But Assembly is full of people who write, but don't necessarily identify as a writers. What's so special about it is it's an open and inviting space for people to share their work who want to get better. It gives people the opportunity to improve their craft and make new friends and cultivate community. It's like my baby — a really, really beautiful, open group of folks.
How do you see your events relating with, say, Short Run, which also has a pretty strong zine component?
I tabled at Short Run last year. It's very well known, and a huge event. I feel like Spring and Fall for Zines are kind of Short Run's distant cousins. Our last event, we had 30-some vendors. We have 40 this time. And there is some overlap — a lot of the people who table with us have been involved in Short Run, but there are also people who are maybe just getting into zines, too.
Can you think of any examples of the DIY scene in Seattle right now that are especially interesting or exciting? Any new artists who the readers of the Seattle Review of Books might not know about yet?
Are you familiar with Poseurs?
Emily Denton started a pay-what-you-can yoga program. And she puts out a zine — I think monthly, now. My thing is if you want something to happen and it doesn't exist, you have to create it. It's not easy — it takes a boss-ass hustling queen to make it happen. I feel like Emily's done really well at that.
And then on August 26th, you're kicking off a new reading series titled Surreal Storytelling with Strange Women, and the readers include Meredith Clark, Vivian Hua, and Anastacia-Renee. Can you talk about the thinking behind the reading?
I'm really into surreal fiction. Are you familiar with Aimee Bender?
Oh God, I love her. She's a fantastic writer, one of the greats.
Yeah, she's a big reason why I'm doing this. I'm really into magical realism, specifically written by women. I want this to be an evening of weird, strange storytelling fronted by women. The first part of this series is going to be experimental — I don't even know what I'm doing. I'm just going with it, trying to learn from it. But that's okay. It's Seattle, right? Everyone's going to eat it up. It'll be amazing.
Eroyn Franklin is consistently one of the most interesting cartoonists in Seattle. Anyone who has seen her 2010 comic Detained, which documents the living conditions in Washington's immigrant detention centers via a comic laid out in a single unbroken scroll of paper, knows that she's formally inventive and narratively interested in what it means to be a human in the world.
But Franklin has perhaps been best-known for the last few years as one of the cofounders and organizers of Seattle's amazing Short Run minicomics and arts festival. With fellow cofounder Kelly Froh, Franklin has always been right in the thick of the festival, greeting guests and solving problems as thousands of people buy and sell comics around her.
Last week, Franklin announced that after seven years she was retiring from her role as a Short Run organizer to focus on her comics work. This week, I met with Franklin at a coffeeshop to talk about the process of leaving Short Run, why she's confident in the organization's future, and what she's working on now. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
You can keep track of Franklin's work and appearances through her website.
Franklin photographed at the Short Run afterparty in 2017.
Could you talk about how you came to realize that you were ready to move on from Short Run, and what the process of leaving was like?
I had definitely been feeling for the past two years that it was getting really hard for me to manage the responsibility of Short Run — that it was getting so big, and more work was being added every year, but there wasn't necessarily much more compensation for that. So I was having to work a lot of different freelance jobs in order to make sure that I could be a part of this creative project. And it does feel like its own creative project.
But that meant that other areas of my life were kind of suffering. I wasn't making as many books as I wanted to make. I was always anxious and depressed and swinging back and forth pretty wildly. I knew that something had to change, and it took something like two years to realize that leaving Short Run was something that had to happen. I just had to leave in order to give myself the space to pay attention to the other aspects of my life that I had set aside.
I started talking about it in earnest last summer. [Short Run cofounder Kelly Froh and I] had conversations up until [last year's] Short Run that were like, 'I'm pretty sure that I'm going to leave. Kelly, whatever you want to do is perfectly fine. If this is too much for you to do on your own, we all understand. The community understands this is a big effort.'
But right after Short Run she was like, 'I can't not do this. It was so perfect this year — it ran so smoothly and it was so huge and everything was vibrant.' For me, it was a wonderful way to say goodbye because I could experience this peak of joy, but for her it really made it clear that she needed to continue on.
So we worked together to help her build a board that would sustain the vision that she had and that we had.
Do you think about what might have happened if Kelly wanted to quit, too?
Yeah, it would definitely break my heart if Short Run folded. But heartbreak is also a part of life. Kelly and I have always talked about how our friendship comes before anything else — that we are a team that runs this organization, but really it's our friendship that makes all that possible.
So I was looking out for her and she was looking out for me. She never made me feel guilty about leaving. She never tried to pressure me to stay. She understood it. And I know she is going through a lot of the same feelings that I have. We both have problems with anxiety and depression and it is overwhelming.
So yes, I would have been okay if she decided to shut it down, of course, because that would've been her decision for herself. But it's so great to have this legacy that I get to be a part of. And I am one of the cofounders of this great, magical experience.
So what's happened since then?
Immediately afterwards, I had one day where I felt free. I could imagine myself just walking into the studio and just writing an entire book. But in reality I hit a pretty deep depression for about three months, and I just felt like all of my identity was wrapped up in Short Run. It's my community. It's my friends. It's everything. And losing that, all of a sudden — the reality of it, and what that meant, really dragged me down.
And then I walked into the studio to work on this book that was actually supposed to be a collaboration with my ex. And it turns out it's really hard to write when you're just crying all day. So it took me awhile to set that aside.
I went to an artist residency at Caldera Arts, which is in central Oregon, and so I got to spend a month in an A-frame cabin and my only obligations were to make art, walk around, and do whatever I wanted. It was so freeing. [Before Caldera,] I was so depressed that I thought I was going to give up on art, give up on writing, give up on comics, and everything was just going into the trash.
But the second day I was walking around and something just clicked. All of a sudden I had all these new stories flood my brain. They're all fiction, and I've worked a lot in nonfiction so it's really wonderful to be able to just make up these stories and go for walks with my characters and have conversations with them. That was a really healing experience, and it allowed me to also set aside the project that was supposed to be a collaboration, which I do want to come back to when it's not so close to the breakup.
What was it like putting together the board that would help move Short Run into the future?
Kelly and I had a lot of conversations about who would be a part of it and what they would contribute. I think that the board she's chosen is amazing. All the people are super-active and they know a lot about nonprofits, and about the comics world, about art. It feels really solid.
What part of your time at Short Run are you proudest of?
I'm really happy about the smaller programs that Short Run has built. Everyone thinks of the festival and it's this huge event where we have, you know, thousands of people attending and it fills all of Fisher Pavilion. We have 300 artists, and so it's like this big dramatic thing.
But we also have all these smaller programs — we have the Micropress which publishes anthologies; we have the Dash Grant, which is a small grant for self-publishers; we have our educational component. And we also have the Trailer Blaze, which is the ladies comics residency at Sou'wester, which is a vintage trailer park in Seaview, Washington.
That residency is for women comics creators, and that was really important to us because when we first started Short Run, it was a lot of dudes. I remember when Kelly had to make the table map and she had to lay out where everyone would sit at the festival and she'd put three guys and then one woman and three guys and then one woman. It was just so difficult to figure out how to show representation of women.
That is absolutely not true anymore in any way. It's so easy. We're basically 50 percent women and it's not hard — it's not like we're trying anymore. There are so many more female creators in the field. So anyway, the residency is for women comics creators. It's so wonderful because it's a combination of giving women time and space to dedicate themselves to their work, which we often don't have in our daily lives because we have so many distractions.
It's just a very supportive environment. I remember one time at Trailer Blaze in the first year. Without any urging of any kind, we started this thing that we later called "The Compliment Avalanche," where we just went around and told stories about how wonderful the people were. Each woman got to be spotlighted for a few minutes, and it was just such a wonderful loving experience.
So what are you working on now?
Right now I'm working on a bunch of stuff. I just finished a minicomic that's actually an illustrated zine called Vantage #3, and it documents all the walks that I did during that residency I was just talking about at Caldera Arts. While I was there I was really inspired by the environment — both the natural world and the actual space that I was staying in, the A-frame cabin. I wanted to incorporate that into a story, and I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do when I set foot in the A-frame cabin, but I immediately fell in love and realized 'this is a character in this story.'
I think after #metoo, everyone was trying to find an authentic way to talk about how misogyny is rampant in our culture. I wanted to create a story about it, and I wanted it to reflect my personal experiences but also be fiction. And so I started out with this woman who basically goes and lives in this A-frame cabin. She's trying to get away from all the men in her life. She starts having conversations with the environment, with the natural setting and with the cabin, and they become characters on their own and they develop.
She develops a relationship with space that becomes more intimate than her relationships with men, and more loving. And that's as far as I can go into a description of that without giving it all away.
A page from Vantage #3.
It seems like a lot of your work, especially Detained, is about people in space — where they are and how those places affect them and how they affect where they are, and all that. So it seems like this is a continuation of that theme on a very literal level.
Does it feel like working in fiction has enabled you to get a little deeper into those themes?
In some ways, fiction makes it so that I can be almost more intentional in the purpose of the story. When I'm drawing from my own life or from non-fiction stories, I'm indebted to the people who are a part of it. With fiction I can go in any direction I want to. So it does free me up to explore different themes that maybe aren't going to be present in every story. I feel like there's a lot of freedom in fiction that I haven't paid attention to in a long time.
Are you going to still go to Short Run this year?
I'm definitely going to Short Run and I'm going to be tabling for me and Kelly as usual. And of course I know all her books so I'll be able to sling them pretty well. I definitely imagine that I will be a part of Short Run and all the events that the organization puts on. I've been going to the Summer Schools that are going on right now.
They put on amazing events! They just do such a good job, of course I'm going to be a part of it. And some of my best friends are the fantastic women who are the building blocks of this organization. So I'll continue to be in their lives and in Short Run's life forever and ever and always.
Was there anything else you want our readers to know?
Yeah. I'd like to reiterate something that I said in my retirement letter, which is that Short Run will exist without me, but it won't exist without all you. People need to support this organization that has affected their lives. Maybe that's coming to events. Maybe that's donated time. But especially right now the organization does need support, so please give whatever you can in whatever shape or form it takes. I want to see it continue for another decade.
Last week at Elliott Bay Book Company, I interviewed Rachel Heng about her extraordinary debut novel, Suicide Club. Heng was a cheerful, generous interviewee — perhaps not what you'd expect from an author of a raw and intelligent sci-fi novel set in a dystopia that has conquered death. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a portion of our conversation.
When I saw that your novel was titled Suicide Club, I could imagine hearing the Henry Holt marketing department's butt cheeks collectively clench at the thought of marketing the book. Seems like the word "suicide" might be a hard sell. Did they try to convince you to change the title at any point during the publication process?
Well, interesting story: At one point, I wanted to change the title, to Lifers. And they told me that was a terrible title. Well, they were more like, "oh, you should keep your original title." So actually, they were pretty on board with it from the beginning — they felt that it really got across the point of the book. I had my doubts, and for a while I had this other title that apparently sucked.
The book isn't dour or depressing, but it dwells in death and suicide. Was it challenging to keep your head in that space for an extended period of time?
I think my head is always in this space. I think the reason why I wrote the book was because I've always been quite preoccupied with death and loss. Everyone's had the experience where, when you were six or seven years old, you realize for the first time your parents are going to die. You're lying in bed in the middle of the night and you can't go to sleep and you're seized by this existential realization: 'my parents are going to die. What does that mean? I'm going to die at some point. Everyone I know will be dead and millions of people have died before me.'
And this is kind of something that stayed with me my entire life. I've spent lots of time thinking about it in what some people would call morbid ways. For me, it helps me appreciate my life better, always thinking of the fact that it's going to end.
So I think I wrote this book partly out of that fear. I don't think it was a difficult space to inhabit because it's something that I'm always inhabiting. And in a way, writing the book helped me address that — confront it face-on.
This is a dystopian novel, but it's very different than the dystopian fiction I've been reading lately. It's a different kind of doom. I thought before I read this book that I was suffering from dystopian fatigue, but your book feels completely different to me.
I didn't set out to write a sci-fi novel. And I think there's also this thing where, because of the Hunger Games, everyone assumes dystopian means [young adult fiction.] So when I started querying agents they were like, 'oh, this is YA,' and I'm like, 'do you see the title?'
I was kind of naive about the publishing industry. When you have a book coming out, you become hyperconscious of contemporary fiction and everything that's out there. But before that you're just kind of in your bowl and you have no idea what's coming out recently — you don't know about trends. I don't think I was super-aware of the whole dystopian trend until I was querying agents, and I read an interview with an agent who said 'dystopian fiction is so over,' and I was like, 'shit.'
I read a lot of dystopian fiction, but the older stuff. Brave New World was one of the most formative books that I read when I was a teenager. I'm from Singapore originally, and so I grew up in a very dystopian world. I didn't realize that until I was talking to a reporter for the national newspaper in Singapore and she said, 'I see a lot of stuff in the book that is reminiscent of how our government runs things. Did you do on purpose? Is this a satire?'
And I didn't intend for it to be, but I think it's just because I grew up in that world. And in many ways, I think it drew a lot from books like Brave New World and Margaret Atwood. And then as I was writing, someone told me to read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. People had drawn comparisons to that, but I hadn't read it previously. If anything, I think I under-read dystopian fiction.
"I would say my entryway into poetry was probably through music," our July Poet in Residence, Kamari Bright, tells me over the phone. "I loved R&B and Motown and a kid. From there, getting to see the artistry in lyricism, I remember starting to write songs and then poetry." That love of music certainly shows in Bright's performance. When she reads a poem aloud, Bright brings a certain rhythm and stage presence to the material that recalls a musical performance.
That onstage confidence seems to be a natural talent: aside from some experience performing in choir at Fisk University in Nashville, Bright doesn't have a theatrical background.
"I don't remember how I first started" performing poetry, Bright says, but "I do remember there was a big shift in the extent to which I first started to share. I had a few family members pass within a short time. It hit me hard, and I started to think about my legacy and the traits that I wanted to leave behind." When reminders of your mortality get "right in your face," she says, "that reminder that you don't know how much time you have here," stage fright tends to disappear.
Bright is a multidisciplinary artist — her website documents music, theater, film, and visual art projects — but she thinks of herself as a poet first. "I think poetry has a certain simplicity and an accessibility to it," she says. "With other art forms, there are different barriers. You have to get supplies, and you need money." But with poetry, you need "pen and paper, maybe a phone. And if I want to share, I can just put it out on the net. It's really accessible."
As you can tell from the poems she's published on our site this month, Bright is using poetry to examine her religious upbringing. "I think a big part of writing is to help me process things and reflect or make sense of something. Writing those poems came as I was trying go understand my deviation from Christianity," she says.
"I was raised very Baptist on both my mom's side and my dad's side. I didn't start to question it until college. I started to research some things about Christianity and the Bible and other religions, and I realized I don't believe all this in the way it's been taught to me and so I can't truthfully call myself a Christian anymore."
Her poems examine "the process of interpreting all the parts of the Bible that have been detrimental to myself and other people. It's not about attacking the belief or the spirituality itself," she clarifies, but rather studying "what part of it has been influenced by man," and how subjective religious interpretation can be.
Where does Bright see herself in relation to the Seattle poetry scene? "I'm probably still trying to find my place," she admits. "There's a lot of stuff I'm still learning about poetry in general, but I do think once you're in it, it's easy to keep moving further on." The literary community in Seattle "doesn't feel impenetrable."
Ask Bright what she wants out of her career, and she's clear about her aspirations. "I know this is kind of a taboo thing in poetry, but I want to be able to live off of this craft. I want to not have to supplement poetry with a nine-to-five day job. I want to publish another book and get the chance to travel." Her goal, she says, is to "take this wherever people want to hear it."
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.