Earlier this fall, I interviewed book critic and author David Ulin at Elliott Bay Book Compahy about his exceptional book The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. We talked about a wide range of subjects, including how we reacted as readers to the election of Donald Trump and whether anyone has written a truly good post-Trump novel. But this excerpt of the discussion, about the future of book reviewing, is particularly relevant to the interests of Seattle Review of Books readers.
Since you have a long and storied history in the field, what do you think is the state of a book reviewing in 2018? Does book reviewing have a future?
Has book reviewing ever had a future?
[Laughs.] Does book reviewing have a past?
I used to joke around when I was doing it for a full-time living that I had unerringly found the lowest-paying, lowest prestige corner of publishing. I had just gravitated right to that, and I was someone who actually — perversely — supported my family as a freelance book reviewer for a long time.
"Supported." I use that word very loosely. When I was freelancing I was reviewing ten or 12 reviews a month because that was my main bread-and-butter gig.
There's two aspects to it, right? With the art of book reviewing, you know that nothing has changed as an abstract. Certainly where it's available and how much it's available has changed. But the inquiry, the essayistic practice and engagement of the writer with a material? I think none of that has necessarily changed.
I think actually in some ways book reviewing or book culture is as robust as it's been in a long time because of the variety of, of web venues that have stepped up. It's impossible to make a living, which is a big problem — the web venues don't pay, or don't pay comparably to the print venues. And the print venues never paid that well to begin with. But I do think there's a lot of places for literary conversation to take place — maybe more places, and certainly more diverse places, than there were ten or 15 or 20 years ago.
I go back and forth on this: I don't miss the gatekeeper model particularly, although I do kind of like the authority of critics. But I think that that authority has to be earned by the critic — not by virtue of who the critic is writing for, but by virtue of what the critic is putting on the page. And so I think if anything has happened is there's more of an onus on the critics to establish their own authority, as opposed to relying on the authority of the institution that they work for.
I think we're clearly getting on about midnight, at this point, for the book review section. But I'm interested as a reader and as a writer in the proliferation of other non-book-review-section-type venues where the conversation can take place.
Our October poet in residence, Kim Kent, has taken a very long route to arrive at exactly the point where she wanted to be. Kent always considered herself a writer, but she didn't always know that poetry would be her calling.
Growing up in New England, Kent read and wrote fiction. "I wrote a lot of historical fiction as a child," Kent says. "I don't think I had great historical knowledge, so there was always a plague and an enthusiastic, rebellious girl on horseback." Her undergrad minor was in creative writing, but the pull of poetry proved to be unstoppable.
By the time Kent moved to Seattle in 2010, she knew that she wanted to write poetry, but she was having trouble getting motivated. That all changed when she discovered the Hugo House and started to take poetry course. "I think the first class I took was with Kary Wayson," she says, and pauses. "Though it might've been Kate Lebo."
In any case, Wayson's yearlong intensive poetry class proved to be a breakthrough for Kent. "It was intense. She's a great teacher — she's very honest, and for me it was the first time I talked about revision and craft." Kent says the class was "super-generative" and it served as "an introduction to Seattle's literary scene," introducing her to local figures like Kevin Craft.
Kent's poetry is durable — it's constructed thoughtfully and it stays with you. The imagery in her poems resonate in your mind long after you've looked away. Many poets are good at creating one solid moment in their poems. Other poets have a gift for inspiring emotion. Kent's poems do both at once: she sets a scene with clarity and precision, but she also leaves a door open for ambiguity's sake. There's always an unanswered question, an unexplored path, just begging for your attention.
After finding her way around Seattle's literary scene and starting to develop her voice, Kent left Seattle to attend grad school in Spokane from 2015 to 2017. She's a rare Washington poet who's conversant with the literary scene on both sides of the mountains. "For whatever reason, each side of the state has their own opinions of each other, but I felt very lucky to have a home in both."
In recent years, Seattle poets have left town due to rising rents and moved to Spokane. Now, those writers are coming back to visit with surprising regularity. "I went to readings at the Hugo House on Wednesday and Thursday of last week," Kent says, "and both of them had Spokane poets in them. I think the more we can combine our scenes, the better."
That said, Kent feels like she's at home in Seattle. She likes how Seattle's scene "seems very authentic to the city. I like that people are hustling, and even though it isn't always easy, people are showing up for each other and supporting each other more and more."
One of the ways that Kent is showing up for the community is her acceptance into the Made at Hugo program, which provides young Seattle writers with a peer group and a run of the writing organization's resources. Kent is making the most her time as a Made at Hugo Fellow, attending plenty of readings and classes. Right now she's a part of a class by local author Keetje J. Kuipers, which she says offers plenty of new perspectives in a workshop setting. At the end of the program next year, Kent hopes to have a good draft of a first poetry collection to send out to publishers.
Kent seems to be learning as much as she can from a great tradition of Seattle poets. She counts Elizabeth Austen's class about public speaking as one of the most influential learning experiences of her life as a poet, and she's a big fan of Frances McCue's most recent collection. As she talks about her past and her plans, it's clear that she's very deliberate in her intent to place herself in the Northwest poetic tradition. She's proceeding thoughtfully and with great care to ensure that she's adding something of great value to our community.
Earlier today, we published interviews with Short Run board members Megan Kelso and Mita Mahato.Our final Short Run interviewee of the day, Otts Bolisay, is the newest member of Short Run's board, but his enthusiasm for the organization is palpable.
How did you get involved with the Short Run board of directors?
[Short Run cofounder] Kelly [Froh] invited me last year. I had been a Short Run fanboy for a pretty long time — I had gone to, I think, every single one of their summer school classes. I'd been to the programming that they have around the Festival every year. They brought Anders Nilson in one year to speak at Ada's on Capitol Hill. I hadn't really known his work, but even to hear their introduction, and why they thought he was an interesting artist and why they even bought him out to Seattle was just really great. I didn't know any of that stuff. I'd even volunteered at the festival — I screenprinted shirts and everything. I think all that showed I would actually show up and that I was interested.
Why you in particular? What do you think you bring to it?
You know, it's funny: I actually told Kelly that I didn't think I should be on the board because one of the things that I appreciated about Short Run is it was so very distinctly led by women, and that fact showed up in all sorts of ways that I appreciated in the programming. Just everything about Short Run was welcoming and open and it had really different energy. And I appreciated that and I didn't want to mess that up.
So what did Kelly say in response to that?
She said, "no, it's still women-led because I'm here." And I think she knew my background in communications, working especially with nonprofits — she may have had some of that in mind, and some of my relationships that I've had over the years with communities of color. I've done a lot of social change work, and that might have been something that she was hoping I could also bring to the board.
So what have you been doing? What have you been up to?
Well, leading up to the festival, we were just talking about the kinds of programming we wanted, who we could get, who might be a good person to do [onstage] interviews and things like that. And as we get closer, it's more festival business, just the day-to-day of the organization: making sure that there's money, that we don't have to scramble for anything, that we are able to pay people.
I send out the few emails that the organization sends out — reminding people that the festival's coming up, or contacting all the exhibitors with the instructions for Fisher Pavillion, and updating the website.
And as a self described Short Run fanboy, what are you looking forward to in this year's festival?
A coworker of mine sent me an illustration that somebody named Myra Lara, did and it was really cool. And I checked out Myra's website and I realized Myra is one of our exhibitors, and she's also local. Myra is one of the people I'm really looking forward to seeing. I'm also excited for something called Free Ass. Mag. Anders Nilsen is going to be back. i think he's going to have the second part of Tongues with him. I bought the first part last year and I loved it. I'm looking forward to picking that up.
And then I'm excited about yəhaw̓, an indigenous regional indigenous creative group. They've got a bunch of events over the course of the next year, but they're going to be tabling as well. I'm super excited to see what they have.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time reading Seattle comics knows the name Megan Kelso. Kelso has long been a passionate advocate of the Seattle comics scene, but this year is her first as a full-time member of the board of the Short Run Comix and Arts Festival. We talked about the board's work this year of institutionalizing Short Run without losing any of the special sauce that makes it so great. (Read our interview with Short Run chair Mita Mahato here.)
How did you get involved with the Short Run board of directors?
I met Kelly right after I moved back to Seattle after being away in New York for years. I moved back in 2007 and I met Kelly soon after that at comics events, and then Short Run started up soon after that. I remember her contacting me before the first Short Run and saying something like, "please support us by getting a table — we want as many longtime Seattle cartoonists to participate as possible."
And I was just so thrilled that like a thing like Short Run was starting in Seattle, because for all the comics we have going on here, there had never been much of a show. So I was really enthusiastic from the very beginning. I didn't have a table every single year, but I tried to be involved in some way every year.
To be honest, I wasn't like a super-involved volunteer. I would, you know, put up posters, or sometimes I would host artists who were visiting from out of town. But I always tried to keep my hand in.
And then I also have this other relationship with Kelly, because she looks after elderly people — she's a companion to them, and keeps them company. And she worked for my mom for years. So we, we grew kind of close through that, which had nothing to do with Short Run, but I think we developed this whole working relationship because of that. And in a way I feel like that's partly why she invited me on the board — she got to know me in this other way that showed I was a reliable person in a non-comics context. Then I had more time after my mom died, and Kelly knew that, so that's when she swooped in and asked me to become a more involved Short Run helper.
I was thrilled because I had been keeping my distance a little bit. I just didn't have the time for a few years, because things were really heavy going with my mom. But then my time freed up.
I think I'm the oldest person on the board. And I think that's partly why I'm there too, is I'm a sort of connection to like the comic scene of years past.
So what has it been like, putting the show together from your perspective?
We started meeting in January or February, I think. And, you know, Kelly was really frank with us from the very beginning that she was going to need more help from the board than years past because she didn't have her partner, Eroyn. They kind of invented Short Run out of whole cloth, and they had a lot of it in their heads. So a lot of what Kelly had to do was put more down on paper and put more out for us to do, because she knew she couldn't do it alone.
So I think a lot of this year has been us helping Kelly download everything about Short Run that's been in her brain. I'm getting it more documented so that we can take a lot of it on.
It's an interesting process at the beginning of the year. It's super pie-in-the-sky — we're talking about our hopes and dreams for the next year for the show. And then as time marches on, things just get much more practical: "who's going to pick up this artist at the airport, and who's going to follow up with that person to see if we can get some publicity?"
So, yeah. I have a much better picture now about the yearly cycle of Short Run.
There's been this thread running through the year that we want to make the show more appealing to families with children. We also want to include more people of color both as artists but also as people who help with the festival and, ultimately, work on the board. We've been talking a lot about opening up Short Run to be more than just the traditional comics community that we've had in Seattle over the years — a community which is awesome and who we love. But we also want to open up Short Run to a wider world of people, especially since Seattle's growing so much right now.
Is there anything in particular that you're especially looking forward to this year that you want our readers to know about?
I'm really excited about the artist Anna Haifisch, who drew our poster. I wasn't familiar with her work until Kelly introduced us to it. I think it's one of the coolest posters we've ever had — we've all talked about how it feels timely, like we do feel like the world is on fire right now, and that's kind of been a sort of running theme as we've been planning. So I'm really looking forward to meeting her and seeing more of her work.
And then the other one that I'm, excited about is Rina Ayuyang. I'm actually going to be interviewing her onstage, and I'm excited about it because we've been cartoonist friends-slash-colleagues for years and we've always had a lot to talk about. So I think it'll be kind of really fun for us to do that in this public way. She has this awesome new book from Drawn and Quarterly called Blame This On the Boogie which is all about her obsession with dance movies and dance reality shows. It's just this crazy kind of all-over-the-map book, and I really love it.
Is there anything else that you think that our readers should know before before Short Run really gets underway?
One of the things that I've been thinking about and talking to Kelly about is that this is Short Run's eighth year, and I was imagining a teenager who loves Short Run, who kind of grew up going to Short Run. For that person, Short Run is this institution. Even though we still think of ourselves as this kind of crazy upstart project, I think we're starting to be viewed from the outside as more of an institution. That's an interesting place to be — you have to reconcile your inner feelings of "oh, we're just putting on this crazy show" with the expectations that people have because it's been around for a while now.
I once read a very woo book that said our spirits were fifty feet tall and part of the awkwardness of being a baby is that we are crammed into these tiny bodies. Readers can feel the immensity of Calvin Gimpelevich’s spirit unfurl in his writing as he captures the absurdity of being in a body on this planet in a society that continually attempts to restrict our possibilities.
Calvin has been organizing art shows and performances in Seattle with the queer art collective Lion’s Main for years, and his debut collection of stories has been a long time coming. Invasions (Instar Books, October 2018) brings the lens of queer and trans fiction and flips the script on the "real world." The stories in this collection capture the isolation of being in a body in a world where what you appear as determines the limits of who you are. A six-year-old girl wakes up as a middle-aged man; a narrator becomes trapped in the minds of other people; other characters swap bodies only to long for their own somatic memory.
In a time when toxic masculinity is under speculation, and the #MeToo movement is embroiled in who gets to claim it, the gender outlaws in Invasions lead us into the deeper explorations of these power dynamics through a different collateral of social power and powerlessness.
In preparation for his book release at Elliott Bay Book Company on October 28, we spent some time discussing speculative fiction, structure, and the possibility of the body. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
These stories exist at the intersection of speculative fiction and realism. It’s almost as if you’ve warped which is which. We are invaders in these bodies and trying to sort out how to make the shape connect more and are trapped in how other people see us. Is this accurate in your experience of writing these stories? Can you talk about your process of blending realism and speculative fiction?
I lived for many years with my grandmother, who was schizophrenic (my mother being her legal guardian). I remember so many instances of failed communication in which we were unable to move beyond fundamental disagreement of fact. This failure seeped into my adult life, where — both professionally and personally — I've been around many people whose sense of reality doesn't match mine, and where I've realized that my own reality is not necessarily objectively true. I feel best about an interaction, not when I've managed to convince someone that my perspective is right, but when multiple perspectives are allowed to exist, showing what is unseen in our own. The traditional concerns of literary fiction (which I tend to think of as focusing on internal, as opposed to external, action) are almost always more interesting to me, but I've found it natural to dip into speculative work to explore those concerns.
So is it almost like speculative fiction makes it possible for multiple perspectives to exist. Who are some of the writers who helped form this craft approach for you?
Rushdie talks about magical realism as being as legitimate (or accurate — I don't remember the specific wording) as realism, that there is a tyranny in only one accepted perception of fact. I've gotten a lot out of surrealists and magical realists: Allende, Calvino, Morrison, Kafka, Bolaño. Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being is still one of the most beautiful perspectives on multiple realities that I've read.
Something the stories truly captured for me was dysphoria — I don’t think I had seen my own experience of it manipulated so well in literature. Particularly the strangeness of being in these heaps of flesh. In "Transmogrification," a story told in the second person, a six-year-old girl wakes up as a middle-aged man. The stories and the narrations get inside my body and take over. How do you see POV at work in your stories to create this effect?
“Transmogrification” is the first short story I wrote (after an attempted novel in high school). I was eighteen — two years from realizing I was trans. At that point, I was so alienated from (and confused by) my own body, that second person — the disorientation of it — seemed better.
You mentioned, earlier, being trapped in how other people see us. Personally, that was as large a piece of my own dysphoria as the physical reality of my body before hormones.
Your stories often seem to start and end in the middle, which I think is a more accurate experience of storytelling. It's also true in the way we think about transitioning in the body. I think a cis audience might think that there is a narrative: gender discovery, hormones, surgery, FIN but it never or very rarely ties up that way. The narrator in your story "Runaways" wonders what's next when he's finally done saving for surgery. How do you find endings in situations and stories where it is philosophically impossible to locate them?
I got obsessively interested in narrative structure in my early twenties, which led to a lot of research, and a drafting process for my own work involving diagrams, numbers, and graphs. I've calmed down (until I teach or edit for other people, which always turns into a rant about five-act structure and kishotenketsu and other things you probably don't need to know, but that I can't stop fixating on). The boring answer is that the endings come out of my personal understanding of narrative and what the central conflict or story is.
Get nerdy! How are five-act structures and kishotenketsu at work in your thinking with Invasions?
Five-act structure is something I've seen discussed more in film and theater than literature, but I've found it helpful in pacing, character motion, and decisions about events. I use it is to imagine the short story as a single act in a larger five-act piece — like pulling a short film out of a longer movie. Vonnegut talks about something similar, and I think it helps make a short seem like part of a larger dynamic world. The best concise overview that I've found of five-act structure is "The Myth of the 3 Act Structure" by Film Critic Hulk. I make all my students read it.
Kishokentetsu is the Japanese name for an East Asian narrative (and argumentative) structure that places the emphasis on contrast as a means of interest, versus conflict (which is often seen as the only legitimate motion in Western narrative tradition — going back to Greek theater). I've read as much as I could about this structure in an attempt to deconstruct the three- and five-act models I've so thoroughly internalized. I haven't drafted anything purely along the lines of this structure (and doubt I grasp it well enough to succeed), but thinking about it has helped bring certain pieces more depth.
Can you talk about the process of writing "The Sweetness" — about a man whose consciousness can enter into the minds of others through their eyes, and ultimately enters into a cop during a gay bathhouse raid? What is your relationship as a writer to entering into other bodies and experiences? How often do you find softness there?
Empathy! This seems like the whole point of being a writer (or a fiction writer), to step into other people with as much softness and suspended judgment as you can. If I were actually psychic, I wouldn't need to write. But I'm not, so I have to construct other internal realities of my own.
I need to shout out my editor Jeanne who invested a lot in this story, and worked particularly closely with me in the editing process. I drafted "The Sweetness" during a painful breakup, which maybe accounts for the tone. See how melodramatic I am? To express my grief at a relationship ending, I wrote a story where everyone dies. It takes place during "Operation Soap," the actual 1980s Toronto bath raids. Here I was also melodramatic — no one died in any fires in the accounts that I read.
That's so interesting, because the fact of everyone dying really highlighted what's at stake in terms of connection, shame, and human frailty. Especially in the present day, when HIV is still an opportunity for criminalization and of course the criminalization of trans bodies, especially the bodies of trans people of color.
Anything set in the 1980s, especially concerning queer people, makes me think about AIDS. It was hovering in my mind in this story — that the epidemic had such a frighteningly deadly rate, so little understanding, and how hard people were fighting to make their governments care. That Operation Soap–like raids were happening in the midst of this, and that the virus is still used as a means of criminalization, is upsetting. I was just reading Samuel R. Delany's letters from 1986. He talks about AIDS so rarely, but it's always hovering. There is a beautiful letter, toward the end, where he talks about moving out of that fear.
While reading I really felt the isolation of the body and the radical potential of it. In “Eternal Boy” the narrator says “I have emotions I just don’t like to feel them.” Characters continually experience the disconnect between what the body is capable of feeling and what they (their spirit, their psyche, whatever it is that fills these forms) are willing to attempt within those limitations. The stories seem to demand, of course you love, but how much are you willing to feel?
Before writing, I studied psychology, and my patchy professional background centers around social work. What you've just said — the disconnect between what the body is capable of feeling and what they are willing to attempt within those limitations — is one of the best summations of what interested me in that field. Trauma is given, but how does a person respond?
In your stories, they seem to respond through isolation or finding connection. Your stories really capture what's at stake in our loneliness.
Yes — isolation and connection not only in relation to other people, but in themselves.
The conflict in many of these stories is the absence of communal care or the desire for it. What is your relationship to communal care in trans and queer lives and TQ literature? Where do you see possibility, and how can fiction take us there?
It's been interesting to see the response to Invasions, which is overwhelmingly focused on the book as a piece of trans literature. I wrote these stories through my transition, living primarily in queer world. To me, I was writing fiction about people, and the people I was around were queer, so it made sense to explore larger topics through them. I understand that I am writing queer lit, but that's not what I'm thinking about when I work.
I suppose that's what any kind of "fill in the blank" literature is — writing about the worlds that we live in.
Who you are will come through.
This summer, Seattle author Paulette Perhach published her first book, a how-to-write guide titled Welcome to the Writer's Life. The book is a great practical guide to the craft and business of writing for aspiring authors, and it also serves as a wonderful cross-section of the Seattle writing community. I talked with Perhach about her event at tomorrow's Lit Crawl, what the reception for her book has been like, and what it's like to publish a debut book that's a writing guide. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Before we get into the book, this interview is going to run the day before Lit Crawl, so I wanted to ask what you had planned for your Lit Crawl reading.
I'm going to be gathering writers from my book, Welcome to the Writer's Life. In the book, I interviewed various writers about being writers. So for the reading we've got me, Anca Szilágyi, Laura Da', Ross McMeekin, and Geraldine DeRuiter, which is such a great lineup. It will be really cool to see how everyone will interpret the theme, which is "Welcome to the Writer's Life."
And that segues us neatly to your book! I really enjoyed it — it's got good advice for writers and it's well-written, and it's thoughtful. What is it like putting out a how-to-write book as your first book?
Well, there's different kinds of writing books. There's the "I'm Stephen King and I've obviously mastered this, so here's everything I know" kind of book.
That's not this book.
This book is about how I used to be totally lazy until I realized I was never going to get what I really wanted, which was to be a writer. It's how I changed myself from someone who wanted to be a writer to someone who was working to be a writer and then looked around and realized, I am a writer. It's about making that transition. There's a lot about work habits and about how to really shift your life to go after it if you want to.
It's for people who maybe aren't lucky enough to live in a city like Seattle or who don't have the chance to sit across the table from three or four other writers and just hear them talk about their lives.
It helps people see behind that curtain of the author photos, which makes everyone look official, and see that everyone feels like a fraud. Everyone's scared. Everyone is trying to figure out how to make it work. You just have to dive in and join the party.
I find that writers love to bullshit about writing — they love to make it sound like the worst thing in the world. Did you have to do a certain amount of digging to get through that bullshit with some writers? Was it difficult at all to get them to talk about the actual mechanics of it?
Every writer has no idea how they make art. And yet you can say, "okay, well, when you're feeling self-doubt, what you do?" I got some great nuggets of wisdom from everyone I interviewed. It was really a joy to talk with writers about writing. After every interview, I kind of felt giddy.
It must help that you're in a writer's workshop with all those great writers.
Yeah, we meet every other week. You come, you read your work out loud, and everyone critiques it.
I think my biggest secret is what I call stakeouts. They're fake stakes — an answer to the question "what would happen if I didn't write today?" I have to have an answer to that question: with the workshop, if I don't write regularly, I'm not going to be able to bring something in to this workshop of people that I really respect.
I have kind of an addiction to reading how-to-write books. You mentioned it already, but On Writing by Stephen King is one of my favorites — even though I'm not crazy about the books that he's written over the last, uh, you know, two decades or so. What about you? Do you still read writing guides?
Yeah, I love them. I used to think I had to be self-taught, and there was some pride in that. And then I realized: "Oh yeah, there's instructions, dummy! Just read the instructions." I really love Priscilla Long's The Writer’s Portable Mentor. That was one of my favorites from the get-go. Some of the first books I picked up when I realized I wanted to try to be a writer were Bird By Bird and The Artist's Way.
As someone who was a totally lazy and terrible student who always wanted to buck the system, I thought it was a fun game to try to not be educated. And the day I graduated college I was like, "oh, I'm supposed to be educated now. I did it — I bucked the system, but now I don't know anything."
So I'm going to be a student for the rest of my life trying to make up for what a terrible student I was in high school and college. I'm into learning as much as I can about how it's done, but then at some point you have to put the how-to-write book down and actually write. They can be a form of procrastination.
Did you have a specific reader in mind as you were writing the book?
I guess I was writing to myself at age 28, when I had come back from Peace Corps and knew I wanted to be a creative writer. I had no money, I had a day job and a side gig on the weekends, I had student loans. I would try to write for like an hour in the evening. I wanted to gain some traction, but I had no idea what I was doing. I started submitting immediately, which is so dumb. I wrote my first story and I emailed all my friends to say, like "I've become a writer." I don't want to know how terrible that story probably was.
So the book is for the person who wants to try to start writing but doesn't really have a plan, or know how to prioritize what it takes to be a writer.
How has it been, now that the book is out in the world? Are you finding it difficult to shift gears back into writing about something other than writing?
I decided for myself that I want to be a writer who helps writers. But I still need to make sure that I don't lose that artist part, where it's just for the joy of it. I use my writer's workshop only for my art writing. That's my sacred space.
Bringing it back to Lit Crawl, is there anything that you're looking forward to at Lit Crawl this year?
There's so many things. I usually just let the night wash over me, because it gets to a point where the opportunity cost just weighs on you. I like to think that going to things like this is like walking through the forest. You're not going to see every tree, but the trees that you're going to see are beautiful.
At a time when festivals are getting slicker and more polished and market-tested to the point of homogeneity, the Airstream Poetry Festival is a delightfully catch-as-catch-can affair. Put together by Mother Foucault Books in Portland, the Airstream festival takes over the Sou’wester Lodge and Trailer Park in Seaview, Washington for a weekend of poetry readings, workshops, publishers, ocean walks, and karaoke.
The next Airstream Poetry Festival takes place the weekend of October 19th. Tickets are just $15, and they include a potluck dinner and omelette breakfast at the Airstream's outdoor kitchen. I talked on the phone with Heather Brown, the events organizer at Mother Foucault, about the four-year old festival. Brown says Airstream started as "a retreat for personnel and friends of the shop. It's been gradually becoming more official" in the intervening years, she says.
While originally the weekend just featured a single reading with poets like Matthew Dickman and Carl Adamshick and Ed Skoog, Airstream now blends readings with workshops, games, music, and film screenings (Northwest Film Forum will be in attendance this year with a collection of films curated by Seattle writer Chelsea Werner-Jatzke.)
Aside from the rural locale and laid-back vibe, the thing that makes Airstream especially interesting is the geography of it. The festival feels like a Portland-Seattle summit, since it's located roughly halfway between the two cities. "It's been really great to get interest on both sides toward meeting in the middle," Brown says. But Airstream casts an even wider net than that: Brown says Bay Area poets also take part in the festival, and that publishers Expedition Press and Copper Canyon are both heading down from Port Townsend.
While she's excited for all the events, Brown thinks Seattle Review of Books readers should especially take note of Alicia Jo Rabins, who'll be reading from her new book Fruit Geode. "She's also bringing music," Brown says, adding Rabins "composed a soundtrack for the book that she'll be pioneering at the festival." She's also interested in the typewriter-themed writing prompt that Expedition Press is overseeing.
Another fun thing about Airstream is that it intermingles workshops and readings in an interdisciplinary vibe. Smartly, it doesn't put up artificial walls between readers and writers of poetry and literature. "It's just a fun place to come," Brown says. "It's a great way to meet new people and also be encouraged in your craft, if you're a writer and to meet some writers up close if you're a reader and a fan."
"And also it's not totally writing-centric," Brown says. "It's very, multidisciplinary. We've got a lot of input from various creative streams." She adds, "and it's also just a great getaway."
You're already saving the date for Thursday, October 11th, right? That's the night of Lit Crawl, which is arguably the biggest single event on Seattle's literary calendar — 40 events spread over dozens of venues in one night all across Capitol Hill, with a big dance party to cap it all off.
But you should also save the date for Thursday, October 4th. That's the kickoff fundraising party for Lit Crawl at Capitol Cider, with cocktails, an auction, a raffle, and live entertainment.
Last night, I talked with Lit Crawl managing director Jekeva Phillips and programming committee member Anastacia-Renée about what they have planned for this year's kickoff party and the Lit Crawl itself. The two writers are impossibly busy in their day-to-day lives — Anastacia-Renée is Seattle's Civic Poet and a prolific author, while Phillips is the publisher behind Word Lit Zine and many other projects — So I wanted to know how they also managed to put together the busiest day in Seattle's literary calendar year. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Is this your first year in your current role at Lit Crawl?
Jekeva Phillips: No, I was managing director last year, and this will be my fourth year. I started out at Lit Crawl as a volunteer, handing out pamphlets to folks and directing lines. The year after that I was invited to be a part of the venues and volunteers team, and then the torch was passed.
So that's kind of how I came to be where I am: Slowly but surely going from volunteer to managing director over the course of a couple years. Last year, my first as director, was a lot of fun. It's really interesting on this side of the fence.
Anastacia-Renée: It's my first year being on this side of Lit Crawl. In Seattle, I'm always trying to be the underdog who makes change. And I felt honored that Jekeva asked me to be the part of the programming committee because I felt like that was another way I can make change. I don't mean change in terms of previous Lit Crawls — I mean change in terms of how Seattle views itself.
First of all, I think Jekeva Phillips is one of the most underrated African-American/POC makers and changers in the city. Jekeva does a lot of work, and I don't think she is recognized in the way that she should be. When I heard Jekeva was involved, I said "I want to do that."
Second of all, I think Seattle gets set in its ways — there's a certain idea of what it means to be a professional writer. As Seattle Civic Poet, and someone involved at Hugo House, I've been trying to tell people, "you are missing out on some of the best writers and artists in this city because you have this small point of view of what a professional writer is." Lit Crawl gives me an opportunity to say that just because you don't know about this writer, or because they don't have fifteen books published, or because they're not a cis white male, doesn't mean they're not amazing. I get to help show the community what they're missing.
Jekeva Phillips: Anastacia is always so warm and giving and she always sees the brilliance in people. That's what I wanted to bring to Lit Crawl: different kinds of POC voices, queer voices, trans voices. There are so many writers hiding in the margins of the city, and it takes the kind of person who cares about people like Anastacia does to give them a chance. We love those voices, we love to say "hey, this person is awesome and we should put them on the same platform as everyone else."
For one night we just share our love of books and poetry and nonfiction. We all kind off come together. it doesn't matter if you're a sci-fi writer or a literary fiction writer — we're showcasing that there's always something for everybody, and everybody's got power.
What do you think makes a great reading?
Anastacia-Renée: I really appreciate when I can traverse genres. Even though I'm a cross-genre hybrid writer, people always ascribe me to poetry. But I write non-fiction, I write flash fiction. We're all writers. We don't have to stay in our little compartments. Genre freedom is a must. Free the genre! Free the nipple, free the genre. That's the title of your piece right there. We can be together — we can actually be together on one stage and share our work.
Jekeva Phillips: I also wanted to say everyone has done such a great job and it's been so much fun. It's a great team: Vi Tranchemontagne does programming and venues, Kathleen Flinn works on programming, and Julia Hands does our marketing and PR. It is such a labor of love and we all are laughing all the time. Together, we really put together a really great program.
We'll have over 40 events in one night in different venues. It's very stressful when you think about it that way, but there's no drama. We push boundaries, and we support each other creatively.
Anastacia-Renée: I totally agree. I've been a part of other committees, and I think there's a feeling here of camaraderie and a feeling that I'm safe. I've been a part of committees where i didn't feel safe — I had the sense that I was there only because of tokenism. Here, there's a shared vision of awesomeness — the amazing feeling when you want everyone to succeed.
Jekeva Phillips: Seattle gets caught up in a set way that we think about what it means to be a writer, and we try to challenge that at Lit Crawl.
I really love Katy Davis's design for our poster this year. I wanted something that makes books fun. I don't understand why we think about books as being this nerdy, educated highbrow thing. We should think about books as something fun. They're cool. You know, I've read all the classics, I'm not pooh-poohing them. But I wanted something that's fun, that's urban, that's engaging with a cool vibe. I want people to think about books the way they think about TV shows and bands.
Anastacia-Renée: I think the poster totally captures the feeling of Lit Crawl. I think music-lovers get it more than writing lovers. You don't see anyone saying, "this kind of music is actually the only real kind of music," or "I don't know, I'm only listening to such-and-such right now."
I need writers to get on board with this: The other arts have diversified what they think is special and good. You go to a museum and it's not one kind of art. It's not one thing. It's a lot of different kinds of art.
This is what i love about Lit Crawl: When you think about it, it's the one time of year when I feel that you get the whole Seattle experience for free in one night. It's actually kind of amazing. I know you can't print this, but it's fucking fantastic.
Jekeva Phillips: A big reason why it's free is because of our fundraiser on October 4th. We have fun things we're going to be auctioning off — items with different price ranges. We'll have things on the cheaper side that are better for our writer and artist friends, but we'll also have items like a voiceover class and different works of art.
We wanted to bring some fun stuff to the Lit Crawl fundraiser kickoff party this year, which is why we asked Briq House. She's a body-positive burlesque performer, and she'll be doing a literary/Halloween-themed burlesque dance. We love books, but we also love to party.
Anastacia-Renée: We writers are not all sitting by windows counting sparrows. We like burlesque and we love fun.
Every Lit Crawl, I discover at least one writer who just completely blows me away that I've never seen before. Where do you find these folks?
Jekeva Phillips: I go to a lot of readings and so does Anastacia. And I'm going to give a lot of credit to our programming team.
There are whole communities up in Everett and Lynnwood that are doing great things, and if they can come down here for one night and showcase those skills, maybe people from Seattle will start visiting them.
Anastacia-Renée: I think my specialty is finding people who are gems who have not been asked by Hugo House or Jack Straw or Elliott Bay. In fact, I make it my mission. My mission is to find the gems that you don't even know are gems. And then I'm interested in what would happen if two people who are totally opposites read together. Those are my two strengths. I don't always set out to look for POC readers or queer readers or trans readers, but those are often the gems who need recognition.
Jekeva Phillips: Talking about what you said about being blown away: I think the best events always linger. When I leave the reading, I can't forget about what they read because their perspective is fresh. They demand an audience.
Anastacia-Renée: Going back to the music analogy, if you really like a band, you're not going to keep them to yourself. No — you're going to tell people about them. I feel that way about really great readings, too.
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.