A little over a week ago, I moderated a panel on DIY culture for Literary Career Day at the Seattle Public Library downtown. The panel conversation was between myself, author Jeffrey Cheatham of the Seattle Urban Book Expo, and poet Rita Wirkala of Seattle Escribe, but many of the dozens of young aspiring authors in the room took part in the conversation, which covered a wide array of topics.
Cheatham talked about his surprising success with the first Urban Book Expo, and his current attempts to turn the festival into "an actual movement, a culture" that represents writers and readers of color in Seattle. Wirkala discussed her history as a writer and a publisher and a published poet, as well as her work with Escribe, which she describes as an organization featuring readings, "classes, and workshops for people who are writing" in the Seattle area.
Most of the questions centered around how they manged to build a community, and how they kept the community going once it got started. Wirkala said "I'm not very good at finding people, but people have found me" because she kept herself available as a publisher and a writer. Putting her name out and maintaining a presence in the city meant that like-minded could easily find her. As to maintaining the community, she attributes that to the "self-generated energy" created when "you find people who are on the same wavelength and you fit with them."
Cheatham said when he created the first Expo, he went on a listening tour. "I listened to potential clients, because they'll tell you what you're looking for when they go to events," and then he took it upon himself to "mold the show to fit what they wanted." And in order to more than double the size of the second Expo, he says he kept his ears open after the first one. "I just listened to my customers. They told me what they wanted."
Putting on an event is hard work, Cheatham notes, but if you listen and create a space, people "as human beings want to find something they can call their own and work together on." Everyone's looking for their people, and they're willing to work to keep their community together.
Those groups are important for writers and publishers, Wirkala agreed, because "when you write, or when you're engaging with work, you are too close to it as an idea. You always need somebody to help you" gain some distance from the work. "And you learn a lot from other people who are in the same field. That's really important," she added.
Earlier this month, Lisa Rosenblum had her first day on the job as the King County Library System Director. Rosenblum has worked in libraries across the country, but she’s taking the helm of an especially vibrant library system in KCLS.
King County Library System seems well-positioned for the future. Last year, digital reading platform Overdrive announced that King County led the nation in digital book checkouts, ahead of the systems for Los Angeles, New York, and even Seattle. In 2017, KCLS users checked out over four and a half million ebooks and digital audiobooks, but physical media hasn’t been left behind in the digital gold rush—over ten million visitors checked in to KCLS’s 49 branches, and they checked out some sixteen million non-digital-book items.
We talked on the phone with Rosenblum last week, to get a sense of where she’s from and what she wants to do at KCLS. The following transcript has been lightly edited.
What brought you into this line of work, and how you came to be interested in libraries? Do you have a librarian superhero origin story?
Well, I know you’re hoping for a romantic story, but I'm afraid mine came from a recession. I went to this fancy liberal arts school back east, called St. John's College, which is a great book school that gives you a liberal arts education in the most traditional sense — you study Ancient Greek, and you translate Sophocles, and you read the plays in the original language. It was an amazing education. But I got out during a time where there were no jobs, especially for overeducated liberal arts majors.
So, I started working. I got a job at a government contractor that provided library services to Army libraries. This was outside of Washington DC. Then, from there, I moved to Houston, married my husband, and got a job at Rice University, doing what we called, back then, cataloging. I knew from that point on that I never wanted to be a cataloger, because we had to file cards. I don't know how old you are, but I’m old enough to remember cards and card files.
Oh, sure. Yeah.
So, the big deal was, if you were good, you could drop your own cards. You know the little rods that went through the holes in the cards?
Well, when you did it correctly, you were allowed to pull out the little pole, have the cards drop down, and then the pole went through the hole in the bottom of the card, and that was it.
At Rice University, you were only allowed to do that if you never made a mistake filing. Well, in two years working there, I never could figure it out. I always had one or two mistakes, so I was never able to drop my own cards. So, long story short, I knew that this level of detail work was not my strong point.
So, fast-forward: we leave Houston, we're in California. Back then, California was hiring librarians without library degrees if they took tests, and I said, 'I'll never pass.' My husband encourages me: 'Oh, just take the test. Take the test.' So, I did, and I failed miserably on anything librarian-ish. But remember I told you I had that fancy liberal arts education? Well, I could match the author with the title of all these old Greek and Latin and Roman works, so I passed the test. Then I had an interview, and I got the job as a librarian.
I really loved it in the public library. This was before the internet. I really enjoyed helping people find answers, find information. This is back when these big reference books were behind us, and we could pull them down and find the answers to questions like, what was the average temperature in Prague in August? You just felt so empowered. I also was a youth librarian, and I did book talks. I'd go out to schools and talk about books in a very entertaining way, summarize them very dramatically.
So, I really learned to love the public library, and that's kind of how I got into it. It wasn't like I woke up one day and said, ‘I want to be a librarian.’ It wasn't that I met a librarian when I was in high school or when I was in elementary school and she made an impact. In fact, back then, librarians, I thought, were kind of mean. And they also would separate the children's areas from the adult's, so if you were a kid you were kind of isolated from things.
That's really how I got to be a librarian. From there, I progressively started to enjoy what I was doing. I worked for a big system, did basically everything in it, and then decided I wanted to be a director. I got a couple of different jobs as a director — including the last one as the director of the Brooklyn Public Library. Every time, I just really enjoyed what we do in our communities. I think that we really are very impactful and have done a great job in changing with what our community needs. The library I entered into more than 25 years ago is different than the one that we run now, but it's still the same. We still value books and reading and literacy, but we just do it in a different way, that's all.
So you mentioned Washington DC and Houston and California. Where are you from originally?
I originally was born in New Jersey, on the East Coast. Then, when I was 12, we moved to Virginia because my dad got a new job. Then, like the pioneers, I gradually made my way out west. I lived in California for most of my career, but I took up the opportunity to work for Brooklyn, because they recruited me.
So, I did that for two and a half years, and I decided that as much as I like New York, I'm a West Coast girl now.
And, of course, the King County Library System is known nationally as one of the best in the country.
I wanted to ask you what drew you to apply for the job at King County.
Well, first of all, King County has a national reputation of public support for libraries, and building beautiful libraries, and being really innovative. We were hearing about King County in California 20 years ago, when Bill Ptacek, the beloved leader of KCLS, had the insight to realize we were in the materials movement business. He knew we needed — this is back before digital — to be more efficient in how we move our materials around our system, and created that huge sorting machine in Preston. They've always been ahead of their time, and the community support for libraries is very desirable.
Plus, living here, this is a wonderful place. Or so I’ve heard. Because I've come at the worst of times, I'm told. It's dark when I go to work, it's dark when I leave. So I'm told this is a beautiful area, I just have to wait a couple of months.
Fortunately, I moved here from Brooklyn and not California. I think the change from California would have been too much for me, but I left in a blizzard from Brooklyn, so I’m used to variations in weather.
What are you reading right now?
Well, right now, I'm reading the classifieds to see where I can buy a condo here. I have to be honest with you, I have not been reading a lot since I moved here a week and a half ago. But, the last book I read was Manhattan Beach [by Jennifer Egan]. In Brooklyn, one of our libraries was in Manhattan Beach.I am very interested in reading regionally. I can't tell you what my favorite Seattle regional authors are, I'll be honest with you, but I'm looking forward to discovering them. The other nice thing about moving from Brooklyn to here is that New York City, in general, is a big reading community, and Seattle is too. So, it's great to go from one place to the other. People really like to read here.
Do you have people putting together a list of King County authors to check out, now that you're here?
Well, you know, I haven't asked them to do that. I've asked them to create a map of where all my libraries are. I'm starting there. But that's really a great idea.
I’ll be a patron and ask for a list of the 10 best books I should start reading to learn about Seattle.
Oh, man. If you'd like to come back and share that experience, I would love to talk to you about that, too. That sounds great. I know you haven't been to all of the libraries yet, are there any of the libraries that you think are especially nice in the King County region?
It's like asking who's my favorite child. Let me just say this: I'm very interested in the Skykomish library, the one that I can't get to in the winter.
I'm interested in that one because, first of all, it's in a beautiful area of the state, but, also, it really represents how important a rural library is to a community. It's got limited hours, but it's important that it's out there, that it's open for people. So, that's sort of my adventure library.
I'm starting to visit libraries this week. We're putting in a new maker space area in Bellevue, so that's going to be fun to go to in the next couple of weeks. We're basically creating a space where teens can create things. There'll be laser printers, and there'll be maker machines, and all sorts of stuff.
Oh, and I want to go to Vashon because I think it's so cool I have to take a ferry to get to one of my libraries.
So, yes, I'm looking forward to those, but those are kind of the cool adventure libraries. But, in general, I can't pick a favorite because the design of our libraries here is really amazing. Just the light — the recognition that it gets dark [in this part of the world] and just having all the light, even under the shelving, so that everything is so bright when you come in. It's very thoughtful. Our voters supported us to build new libraries and to renovate the existing ones, and I think we gave them a good bang for the buck here.
Do you have any priorities for your first few months at King County other than visiting the libraries?
Visiting, certainly. As I visit, I’ll be meeting with the staff. Also learning about the board, and working with the board.
And, of course, it's all about the budget — understanding the budget process, and really looking at the budget. How do we spend our money? What could we be doing differently? Just all the sort of basic stuff you do when you start a job.
I also said to the staff today, ‘when I'm visiting your libraries, I want the full King County experience. So where are the best coffee shops, the bakeries near where you are? Where would you go to lunch?’ I love to learn about the neighborhoods where our libraries are too, because they're all very different.
It just occurred to me that the Literary Lions fundraiser for the King County Library System Foundation is coming up in March. Are you going to be at that? Can people meet you there, if they attend the dinner?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I need to find a dress for that.
What have you learned in your meetings with the staff? You have some great librarians out there in the King County system — I know from experience. Is there anything that the staff has really impressed you with, or is there anything that you learned that surprised you?
Well, first of all, I think our librarians are wonderful, but I also think our support staff — the people behind them, the people that are on the floor, that aren't librarians, our circulation people — are great. I think what impresses me is their service philosophy. They really love working with the public and serving them in the way they need to, and in a changing way.
I had a meeting this morning with staff that is very interested in how we're serving our diverse communities. They're interested in social equity. They really keep abreast on what's current in the library field, and what makes the most sense here. They're passionate about what they do. They're very, very passionate about their love of the profession and serving the public.
This week, Cascadia Magazine officially published its first online issue. The nonprofit publication promises to cover all of the Cascadian bioregion, and they look to publish "quality journalism, personal essays, arts coverage, environmental reporting, fiction, poetry, and photography you won’t find anywhere else." I talked with the Seattle-based publisher of Cascadia, Andrew Engelson, about why he's starting a magazine in 2018, and what he hopes to do with the publication.
Why start a magazine now? What sort of niche are you filling that's not already being filled?
It feels like an important time to pay attention to quality writing, to something that requires a more time to reflect on than a Twitter post. After the election of 2016, like many of us, I thought long and hard about what I could do that would actually make a difference.
Plus, I’d recently returned to Seattle after living overseas for seven years. And I realized I identified more with Seattle and the Pacific Northwest than I do as being American. In the course of my obsessive reading of the news, I noticed there wasn’t a publication that treated the region as a whole. You’ve got plenty of city magazines and alt-weeklies, and a wonderful assortment of literary journals and presses—but nothing that looks at Cascadia as a single cultural entity.
Uh, didn't you get the memo that magazines are dead?
Yeah, I’ve been notorious in my career for ignoring big trends. Like that time I blew a chance to pursue a job at Amazon in 1997 when they had twelve employees.
But anyhow, I’m very aware that a ton of newspapers and online magazines have folded in the past few years. And the crazy thing is, I believe it’s an exciting time for writing and creative expression. You can do a lot with a small budget, which is why top-heavy media organizations are struggling. I’m optimistic because the Pacific Northwest has no shortage of great readers and talented writers—the trick is finding a financially sustainable way to connect them.
What are you looking for in submissions?
I’m for an eclectic mix: my only standards are that something be well-written and explore an important issue in some depth. I’ve started working with freelance journalists on stories that have a longer shelf life than what you’d normally find at the dailies and alt-weeklies. In terms of essays and fiction—it shouldn’t be too long, and have a sense of urgency and timeliness. As for poetry I’m not committed to any particular style; just that it connects readers in some way to the intensity of experience. Also, I’m committed to seeking out a variety of voices, whether it’s writers who are women, LGBTQ, indigenous, or people of color. Plus I’m interested in hearing from people who live in rural areas or who aren’t from the upper middle class.
What does Cascadia mean to you? The term has been embraced by a bunch of different groups. What are you trying to say with the name?
For me, Cascadia is a bioregion that stretches from Northern California to Southeast Alaska, from the coasts of Washington and Oregon to the mountains of Idaho. It’s a region of 15 million people from many different cultures and experiences. I’m really interested in communicating across that border on the 49th parallel — I find it amazing that people in Seattle know more about the politics and artistic culture of New York City than they do about Vancouver, a city just three hours to the north—and vice-versa. There are a lot of issues that we share in common—the environment being one obvious example. If you have an oil spill in Anacortes, it’s going to effect salmon runs in the Fraser River. As for the Cascadia movement, I’m not especially interested in any sort of political independence, but rather connecting people across an arbitrary boundary.
If they like what they see when they visit your site, what should readers do if they want to support you?
Well, first, we’d love readers to read what we publish. Second, sign up for our free newsletter, Cascadia Daily, which curates news and culture from across the region, and where we’ll let people know when new pieces are published on Cascadia Magazine. And if you like what we’re doing, by all means please go to the website and make a donation. If we want nice things, it’s up to us to financially support the people who create them.
Image from the C&P Coffee Company website.
For the entirety of its four-year existence, the Words West Literary series has been housed out of an independent West Seattle coffee shop called the C&P Coffee Company. Words West cofounder Susan Rich tells me over the phone that “C&P was the obvious place for us to hold these events because it's the heart of the community of West Seattle —not just the literary community, but the music community, the political activism community, the small business community.”
“That place is [Words West’s] heart,” Rich says, “so it has been really upsetting to get the news.” For 15 years, C&P has operated out of a cozy house on California Avenue; earlier this month, C&P’s landlords put the property on the market for 1.2 million dollars. The owners of the coffee shop were taken by surprise by this development, and they have started a GoFundMe to raise the down payment.
Rich says that C&P has been a “fantastic,” generous host for the series, graciously housing a bookshelf full of books from every author who has attended a Words West reading through the years. So now Words West is trying to return the favor. At tonight’s event, Words West will be collecting donations to add to C&P’s GoFundMe campaign.
“Once a neighborhood loses it soul, it's impossible to get it back again.”
“[C&P owners] Pete and Cam [Moores] have given so much of themselves to their neighbors,” Rich says. They’ve raised money for neighbors who lost their homes to fire, and Rich says that in addition to the readings and live music and community conversations, C&P has hosted “weddings, birthday parties, funerals and book launches.” For a neighborhood-specific reading series like Words West, which bills itself as a celebration of West Seattle literature, Rich says protecting C&P is more than just the right thing to do—it’s a call to arms. “Once a neighborhood loses it soul, it's impossible to get it back again,” she tells me.
Tonight’s very special Words West reading features Seattle-area librarian, literacy advocate, and novelist Nancy Pearl. Rich says she paired Pearl with another venerable Seattle literary figure: “Susan Landgraf is a poet, and a fiction writer, and a former journalist” who has recently become a published author for the first time. Rich can’t contain the wonder in her voice when she talks about Landgraf: “Without giving away her exact age, she's over 70 and she's publishing her first full book of poems and then a book of writing exercises. So, you know, 70 is the new 30.”
What should people who haven’t attended Words West before come to expect from the series if they show up tonight? “Okay, so I'm biased, but I do believe it's the best reading series in the city,” Rich says. The format is a little different from your standard reading: “We do what's called a living anthology, where instead of one writer reading her work and then going to the next writer, we ask them to, in some way, go back and forth between their work.” It’s a more “collaborative” approach, putting the authors in conversation rather than keeping them in silos. Tonight’s theme is on New Year’s resolutions, kept and broken.
You don’t have to be a West Seattleite to attend Words West, Rich says. “I think sometimes people are a little afraid of getting to West Seattle, and I'll say that there's a [RapidRide C Line] bus stop directly in front of C&P Coffee from downtown. It's really accessible.” Seattle is one of the only cities in the country — maybe the only city in the country — that can sustain reading series in every one of its neighborhoods. But for those readings to thrive, they need independent places like C&P Coffee Company to house them, to give them a place to live. I hope you’ll consider supporting C&P’s GoFundMe if you can.
Seattle author Laurie Frankel's novel This Is How It Always Is was one of my very favorite novels of last year. It's the gentle and big-hearted story of a mother who slowly realizes that her child is transgender, and the publisher made no secret of the fact that the story features at least some roots in reality: Frankel is the mother of a girl who was labeled a boy at birth. On Tuesday, January 23rd, Frankel is celebrating the paperback launch of This Is How It Always Is at the Seattle Public Library downtown. She was kind enough to talk to us about what an author experiences when her hardcover book becomes a paperback. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our phone conversation.
So, I just wanted to say first that I really love the book. And I especially love the way that it grew on me — the way that it just sort of stuck with me, and the experience of reading it grew in my mind long after I put the book down. And that doesn't always happen. I was wondering, for you as a writer, did the experience of writing this book feel different than other things you may have written in the past?
First of all, thank you so much — I appreciate it. And you know, I think they all feel different from one another. The primary emotion whilse writing a novel is dread. It is for me, in any case. And then this miracle happens in between the second and third revisions, where you realize this is going to come together.
It wasn't clear to me where this book was going when I started it. So that was a surprise. The way in which this story was going to overlap with my family's story was not clear to me going in. And, so, as that became clear as time went on, all of these other senses of dread came along with that first sense of dread.
Was this the most that you had used your own life in your writing?
In an obvious way, yes, for sure. I think that it's probably always true that novels have a good bit of their author's lives in them.
And I also think that these characters are not people I know — except for having spent a lot of time with them because I made them up. There are so many kids in this book, and I have only the one. That's such an enormous difference that I'm not wrong in feeling very removed from it — feeling that it was very made up.
And now it’s coming out in paperback. What is that experience like for an author? Does it feel like you're going through the publication process all over again?
Yes, that is exactly what it is like. The hardcover release is such a whirlwind. And I was on book tour on and off for nearly a year, so I was traveling a lot. I wasn't thinking about a paperback release at all.
But paperbacks are so different in the way they release it, and what your publisher does for it, and what they want you to do for it. Because this is likely to go out to a whole new audience, you have to prepare for all of that too.
Can you talk a little bit more about the differences between paperback and hardcover releases? I know you said there are different audiences, but I wonder if there are other differences. I think our readers might be interested in hearing about those.
Sure, totally. As you know, with hardcover releases, the focus is on getting reviews and placing articles in various publications to go along with the launch — to try to get the word out. Also, any kind of a tour is going to happen with the hardcover. And so, I've been doing all of that. And all of that is and has been really wonderful.
However, book clubs — almost across the board — have a rule that they only choose books that are in paperback. And I totally get that, because hardcover books are twice as much money as paperbacks if you're buying them from your local independent bookstore — God love you. This is a huge difference.
It’s a big difference in readership, because people who come to the hardcover events usually know something about [the book] and they sought it out. And people who come for the paperback are much more likely to have, say, seen it on a table in the bookstore and picked it up. Because doing that when the book is $30 is totally different than when the book is $14.
Or, they're in a book club and the book club picked the book. Or, they remember having seen it a year ago when it came out in the first place, and so, now here it is in front of them and they’re like, “oh yeah, sure, maybe I'll give that a shot.” So, it's much more likely that readers are coming to it without necessarily knowing what it's about, or having chosen to engage with that topic. And that's a whole different ball game.
I understand that not everything is drawn from your life, but the novel is in part uniquely based on your experience, and that was a part of the public discussion around the novel. I was wondering if you got a particularly personal response from readers — if readers responded in a different way?
Yes. I have gotten a lot — a lot, a lot — of email from parents who said, “wow, me too.” Lots of people who said, “thanks for writing about this, I thought I was the only one.” Lots of adults who said “wow, my experience was really different than this, and I'm really glad to hear that it's changing.” So that was all really great.
I also got a not insignificant amount of hate mail and death threats and that sort of thing. I suppose to speak to your last question, that’s part of my concern about what's upcoming. The hardcover was unlikely to fall into your hands if you weren't ready and eager to hear about what it was about.
And with the paperback, there’s that anxiety: okay, here we go again. And the paperback is opening up to a new audience, and that's so wonderful in so many ways. But there’s also this kernel of okay, who's going to write and yell at me now, and knowing what it feels like to get those emails in your inbox in the morning.
So are you working on something new now? Or are you still coasting on the high of publication?
Oh, Lord, no.
I didn't think so. But I always expect somebody to say "yes, I've just been relaxing nonstop" at some point, when I ask that question.
That's so funny. No, no. That high is such a complicated thing. No, I'm writing the next novel. I think I couldn't not be writing the next novel, at this point. I would be losing my mind if I were still thinking about a novel that is already in the can, and that I can't do anything about. So instead, I'm staying sane by quickly drafting the next one.
What does it mean to represent a city, or a state, through poetry? To me, the role of poet laureate always felt like it would be too much responsibility. Writing a book of poetry is one thing, but to represent the varying perspectives of a community through poetry seems like a daunting task of representation. Seattle poet Shin Yu Pai talked to me over the phone last month about her tenure as Redmond's Poet Laureate — what she learned, her successes and failures, and what she thinks her legacy might be. To learn more about Shin Yu Pai, including samples of her work and upcoming events, visit her website. She reads next at Elliott Bay Book Company on Saturday, January 13th.(Photo of Shin Yu Pai at the "Heyday" video unveiling by James McDaniel.)
You're one of the most thoughtful poets in the Northwest, and I was wondering if your term as Poet Laureate of Redmond provided you with any insights into what being a poet laureate, what representing a city as a poet, means to you. What did the experience teach you?
I learned a lot about what the work of doing public art is like, and what skills are involved in doing that. I worked collaboratively with individual artists and designers, and even companies. Working on a larger scale — working with a community or city — was a new kind of experience for me, and I found that there were different kinds of skills that needed to be brought forward in my own work and ways of managing projects that I needed to be more flexible with: scopes of projects, timelines, and so on.
Those are the things that, over time, informed the way that I went about the work. I made certain pieces knowing what kind of iterative processes they might need to go through before they could be presented or shared. Those were good lessons for me, because for a work to really reflect a community — and for a work to be conversation and collaboration — those things take more time, and a lot of back and forth.
A lot of your work in this project has involved nature. I’m thinking of the leaves and your animated poem “Heyday,” about the Redmond history of logging. You know, nature is probably not in the top three things that a Seattleite thinks of when you ask them about Redmond.
So Seattleites probably think of Microsoft and rocket technology when they think of Redmond. And those things are absolutely true, and they're stereotypes, too. They've still got farmland [in Redmond,] and there's still parts of it that feel very unspoiled to me.
For me, exploring Redmond became this exercise in really wanting to see what the city is: its history, its place. Certainly there's the city — the contemporary technology and what makes it the place that it is now. But I wanted to very much ground that with the physical geography of what Redmond is.
And that’s what drew me to the bike trails, and really interpreting the history and what the city is known for in terms of its archeological significance, alongside famous residents and contemporary people who were important to this city. That was a very intentional gesture, looking up historical records to really look at the past of Redmond, and bring it alive and animate it.
I didn't really have many thoughts about Redmond when I moved here because I don't drive, so I almost never made it out there. But then I started walking, and I wound up walking to Redmond a lot, and I really dig it. I like all the bike trails, and then as I've learned more about it I like what I’m learning. The mayor has been very progressive, and very interested in making the city ready for transit, in a way that other communities outside of Seattle haven't really done. And politically, of course, there's Manka Dhingra, who’s just turned Washington state’s legislature blue for the first time in a while. It’s interesting to me that you don’t live in Redmond but you’re representing Redmond. What was your exploration of the city like?
Yeah, so, it's been a series of visits. Usually they’re built around exploring a certain site. The Heron Rookery was one place that I harvested leaves from, and the Farrel-McWhirter Farm Park. And I also explored the organizations that are there. I've had a couple of really great partners in the Redmond Public Library, in VALA Eastside, in the Senior Center. It’s been a slow and gradual exploration from a distance.
I will admit, honestly, that I think that living here in Seattle — and I don't drive much either — it was a challenge to be more deeply immersed as a Poet Laureate. And I actually think that as they're looking for a new Laureate, they should probably consider somebody from the eastside.
But, I don't think that was necessarily a barrier or deterrent in eventually hitting my stride
One of the things that I did last year for National Poetry Month was to curate this celebration of poetry and song. And so, I brought together people like Jessika Kenney to perform traditional Persian and Middle Eastern music with a performer from Kirkland named Srivani Jade who sings Mira Bai poems.
And it was really exciting to see that the audiences that were coming out for some of these programs were quite different than what you would see at Seattle openings or Seattle readings. Redmond is a city that is very much made up of many immigrants from Southeast Asia, and it was really great to be able to draw some of those folks out with some of those things I'm trying to do.
You've always been a very collaborative artist, but it seems to me that the act of being a Laureate involves a sort of elevation of other artists. Was there a learning curve to finding people and to curating the Laureate experience?
Yeah, certainly in some of the technologically sophisticated projects I wanted to do. I collaborated with the textile artist, Maura Donegan, who is from the east side, on this poetry embroidery project that was a response to a hate crime that happened in Redmond. And it took me a while to find Maura, because I had sort of gone down this path of wanting to figure out a way to digitally fabricate the piece that I made that was basically an embroidered broadside in multiples. But that was a very complicated and expensive process, so ultimately I engaged Maura to just make me one big textile piece that she basically sewed herself.
It was a challenge to find her, and VALA Eastside really helped to direct me towards her. And, with this last piece that I'm doing — this video projection — it took time to figure out who had the technical knowledge. I needed to find a designer who could do animation, and then I needed to find somebody who could help me with the logistical specifications of projecting onto the side of a building at night. So, I've been really lucky through Seattle networks to know who those go-to people can be, to help me create that work.
So, the learning curve, I would say, was pretty steep. Because there are lots of people that I know in my creative network here, but I also felt like the particular projects that I was working on required a certain kind of sensibility.
I wanted to ask you specifically about the textile work, because I don't know if I have seen other Poets Laureate be that, sort of, immediate? It seemed, to me, to be a mix of poetry and visual art and journalism. What a Poet Laureate should do is console in times of tragedy and investigate what the tragedy means to the community. And that seems like, just such a unique moment and unique piece.
Yeah, I'm really grateful that you asked about it. It's a piece that's important to me, and I wasn't able to share it or fabricate it for over a year.
So, I wrote the poem in early 2016 — I want to say in January or February of last year. It was this a crime that you may have heard about in Redmond. It involved a woman named Leona Coakley-Spring, who is a Black business owner and had this small consignment shop, which was called Rags to Riches.
She was running her business and there was a young man who came in, acted really suspiciously, said he wanted to consign some clothes with her. He ended up leaving, and he left behind a couple of garments in bags. And so when she went to look through them to try and identify if she could return the materials and garments to him, she wasn't quite sure what she was looking at. But when her adult son came and looked at the materials, what they discovered was that this young man had basically abandoned a Klu Klux Klan robe.
That was this really, really heavy thing. I remember reading about it in the news and being so shocked and appalled — that in this present day, so close to where I live, that this was happening.
And, you know, a KKK robe is a very potent symbol whether or not you're a black person or not.
And it's such a specific crime, with such a personal level of premeditation to it There’s such a weird intentionality to it. You know, you hear 'hate crime' and you think of, like, graffiti or something impersonal like that, but this feels so direct.
It was very threatening. It was very disturbing to me. It was this clear message of like, "Go back to where you come from." You know?
And so, it really demanded or called in me this reaction to express some sort of solidarity or compassion — some kind of response. And so I wrote this poem and I hoped to share it with the community at that time, but because this was under investigation and the poem included details of what had happened, the city determined that we couldn't share it with the public, because it was an active crime investigation. And that investigation went on for a few months, but ultimately they weren't able to track down the individual that left those items, and Ms. Coakley-Spring ended up closing her store, and the robe was somehow returned to her. I don't know if it was taken in as evidence for a time or if she always had it, but I read a story in the news about her burning it.
That was this really powerful moment too, because I had had this whole plan that I would try to connect with her and ask her if I could have the robe so that I could embroider it or do something with it, and use it as kind of the basis of the response that I wanted to make. And so that didn't work out.
I thought about an embroidered broadside, and that didn't work out budget-wise. And so then, we made the textile, and that was actually shown this summer at the So Bazaar Festival. I partnered with VALA Eastside, which is this gallery in Redmond, and we talked about the idea of putting together an interactive poetry embroidery booth. We wanted to use the broadside that Maura and I had made together as kind of an example of what people coming to the festival could do. They could sit down at this booth with embroidery hoops and cloth and thread and needles, and basically do embroideries themselves and come away with something that they could take home or feel proud of.
And so I curated language out of Redmond's Inclusion Resolution, and I also took language from poems by Elizabeth Alexander, who's a former Obama inaugural poet, and Langston Hughes and some others, that all dealt with inclusion and tolerance in some way. And then we basically mocked them up so that people coming to the booth could stitch those as kind of their sampler. The intention behind the booth was very much to engage regular citizens in this specific dialogue around inclusion.
On Thursday, December 14th, I interviewed author Matthew McIntosh at Elliott Bay Book Company about his remarkable sophomore novel, theMystery.doc. McIntosh is the kind of author who invites the word "reclusive." There are almost no photos of him online, and he has kept himself cloistered away for over a decade working on theMystery.doc. He doesn't take part in group readings, or offer freewheeling chats on Twitter, or have a Facebook page. In fact, the Elliott Bay event was the second of only two readings he did as a part of theMystery.doc's launch.
But McIntosh isn't antisocial or even a little bit chilly, the way you'd expect a so-called reclusive author to be. In fact, he's warm, and charming, and very open about his process. For this event, McIntosh read over a series of videos taken from the book in a 20-minute presentation that incorporated science fiction and spoken word and experimental fiction.
It was a unique performance to celebrate a unique book. theMystery.doc is a behemoth of a thing, a surprisingly readable postmodern novel that is set in the early 2000s but which spans centuries; a realistic book about the dawn of our modern technological age that is stridently, proudly, a book that exults in its page design and corporeality; a big, ambitious book that doesn't have any of the ego or swagger of the typical Big Books by young Franzen wannabes. The book is full of video stills and blank pages and codes and just about every visual trick you can imagine, but it doesn't feel flashy or gimmicky like, say, House of Leaves. Instead, it feels like a book about The Way We Live Right Now. What follows is an excerpt of our onstage conversation.
Since you started with this video, I wanted to ask a little bit about the way they were incorporated in the book as frames. The reader has to turn the page to see the next frame in the video. In your ideal, sort of impossible, version of the book, would somebody turn the page and find a video playing on the page? Or did you separate the frames individually as part of the reading experience?
My ideal version of the book actually turned out to be exactly what the book is. Even when we were doing the ebook — and the ebook by the way, comes free with hardback purchase — when my wife coded this ebook, we were talking about doing that, putting video in there. But that wouldn't really represent what the book is.
So that was a consideration, but I felt like I liked having the time. So much about the images in the book is about time, and so when you come to a scene, or come to a sequence of stills, for instance, there might be stills that will take you 10 to 20 pages to go through.
And so I wanted people to become immersed in the book. I want time to be an issue with them, so that their experience with time, and with that image itself, is part of the experience. I want them to stare at it as long as they want, and never to know what's coming next. If you were to incorporate video, readers would just watch it until it plays out, whereas if you take five stills, you can watch the progression of that time happening.
Video would be passive as well, and that would change the implications of reading and experiencing the book.
Exactly. So, for instance when — towards the end of the book — when the male character turns and runs, he does this in the guise of Jimmy Stewart. It was important in the first page of the sequence to show him sideways, looking and turning and running. The video was so fast that that first moment almost gets lost. So to have it in still form on a page, it’s almost like it’s eternal, in a sense, on that particular spread.
You kind of answered this a little bit, but there were other elements with and the number of blank pages between passages and images, for instance. When people write and draw comic books they worry a lot about the rhythm of the page, and what the reader sees on every page turn and things like that. Was that something you considered?
Absolutely. No question. No question. The design of the book took so long, and was so meticulously done. [My wife and I] had this thing we would call The Turn. And what that meant was on this particular spread, I want the reader to see this particular image. So that means sometimes you have to go back through the design of maybe 20 or 30 pages before it, to make sure that all the text is flowing at that particular rhythm to leave you at that moment where you turn and discover that image.
I wanted to have all of these turns to be surprises. And so every single spread was worked out meticulously — with rhythm, with timing, and with what the reader sees, and what they haven't yet seen.
What was interesting about this project was that every time that we ran up against something that we needed to change — it was never demanded about the text; It was usually running into permissions issues for certain [images] — it turned out better. And so throughout the project I became full of faith that any time I had to do something that was painful because this was the way it was supposed to be, I always had faith that it was going to turn out to be better. And I believe that it did, every time.
Also the book is full color inside, which I'm not sure would have even been technologically possible ten years ago at this scale. Was that a hill you were willing to die on?
Oh, yeah. It was understood. This was going to be in full color, and no edits. Which was a really ridiculous thing to ask. No one would ever do that! Publishing right now is really constrictive — especially with things that are going to cost money, because it's a hard environment to sell literature anyway. And this book costs — I believe it was probably five bucks a copy more than your average book. And yet we only have to sell it for 35 bucks, which is a pretty good deal. And you get a free ebook!
So we thought, ‘well, let's just see if Grove will do it. Grove published my first book without any edits. They were just awesome. And so I asked my agent to go ahead and send it to them, and she did, and when she called back she's like ‘he wants to publish it.’
And I said, ‘that's wonderful. Too bad he's not going to be able to because of the color.’
And she says, ‘he said “Of course we'll publish this in color! Obviously.”'
Every author I've talked to about Grove Atlantic is thrilled with them as a publisher. So I think you you you've got lucky on the first try.
There are big books, and then there are there are big books like this that feel like the author just like poured themselves into it entirely. Given the amount of time that it took to produce the book, and how much control you had over it, did you did you feel drained when you were done? Do you have anything anything left in you for a next project?
I hope so. I think it's going to be definitely different. The things that I've been working on now are a lot different. You can only do this kind of thing, once I think. It was such an immersive experience writing it. I basically did nothing else for 12 years — just worked and worked and worked on the book. And that was the only way to do it, I think.
Every Wednesday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we're asking some of our favorite Seattle authors to recommend the books they're most excited to give as gifts this holiday. Our fourth author is childrens' book author and cartoonist Jessixa Bagley.
I'm happy to recommend my new favorite book, Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. I felt like this graphic novel punched me in the heart. This followup to Jane, the Fox, and Me is a story about a young boy navigating the intense darkness of his parents' recent separation while at he same time experiencing his first love. Both the heartbreaking writing and breathtaking artwork will emotionally level you. Remember to breathe.
Every Wednesday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we're asking some of our favorite Seattle authors to recommend the books they're most excited to give as gifts this holiday. Our third author is novelist and cookbook author Bharti Kirchner.
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer is at once a spy novel and a heartbreaking love story. It takes place, surprisingly, over a long dinner in a fancy restaurant at Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Every Wednesday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we're asking some of our favorite Seattle authors to recommend the books they're most excited to give as gifts this holiday. Our second author is short story writer and novelist Richard Chiem.
I recommend The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector, for that weird strange someone in your life. It's about a maid who accidentally kills a cockroach, and then goes through a stunning and hellish existential dreamscape. Almost every sentence is some kind of dagger, and she reminds me of Kafka but deadlier. Not for all readers, but I dare you watch this interview with her and not pick up all her books right away:
This morning, Artist Trust announced that Seattle writer E. Lily Yu is the recipient of this year's Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award. This is a fairly new award in Washington State's arts scene, but it's a mighty one — it pays $10,000 to its winner, with no strings attached. In 2015, Anca L.Szilágyi was the first Gar LaSalle recipient, and that prize money seems to have paid off; her debut novel, Daughters of the Air, is launching tomorrow night at the Hotel Sorrento. Last year's winner was the novelist Peter Mountford, whose The Dismal Science is a sophomore novel that is so good it will make you renounce the very idea of a sophomore slump.
Both Szilágyi and Mountford are writers of literary fiction, but Yu has a different pedigree: while she's published in literary outlets like McSweeney's and Hazlitt, she's also appeared in science fiction and fantasy publications like Tor.com and Fantasy and Science Fiction. A Clarion West graduate, Yu has appeared in multiple annual best-of sci-fi anthologies. You can read some of her short work by following these links on her website.
If you're the last human being on earth who is still snooty about sci-fi, Yu might be the author to turn you around. Her prose is weird and beautiful and striking. She's a unique voice, she has published some beautiful fiction in the past, and she will undoubtedly produce great works in the years to come. You'll want to be a fan of her now so you can say you knew her before it was cool to be a fan of E. Lily Yu. Yu was kind enough to talk with me over email about winning the Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award; hopefully she'll do a longer interview with the Seattle Review of Books in the future.
Congratulations! What was your response when you were told you'd won this award?
Joy. Astonishment. Amusement and embarrassment over my lack of faith; the phone call was a bit of a divine I-told-you-so. Then a sudden and overwhelming sense of peace. I'd felt anxious the day before, and that all went away as if it had never existed. It'll come back, of course, all the colors and tones of the human experience do, but for right now there's just peace.
May I ask what you're planning to do with the prize money? Is it going toward living expenses, or is it devoted to a special project?
Buying time. I'm buying two months and ten days with it. And I'm spending that time right now.
Do you think of yourself as a Northwestern writer? Does your regional identity figure into your work on a thematic level?
This is home. It was not always home, it might not always be home—that's in God's hands—but right now it is home in the deepest way. Like blood. Like bone. It has and it is and it will appear in my work.
That said, I am many regions. Most of us are. One crosses whole countries between Fulton Street and Harlem, but who would call themselves a Bed-Stuy writer?
The previous two recipients of this award have been literary writers. Do you think it's significant that this time it's going to a writer whose work can be classified as genre fiction?
Not particularly, but I am not best placed to know. I came to Seattle years after it made a name for itself as a hub for both literary and speculative fiction, so the intermingling of the two communities seems to me to be the most natural thing in the world.
Does that distinction—the literary and the genre—mean anything to you?
As much as fences mean to flowers.
“The lives of Native women are not valued greatly in the Americas,” Arizona poet Natalie Diaz explains. This is not just a matter of feeling underappreciated; literal lives are at stake. “The rates of Native femicide in North and South America are astronomical, and also invisible in regard to mainstream media discussion.”
Part of the reason these lives are being snuffed out, Diaz says, is because Native women feel isolated and removed from the culture. “It is not often that we see positive and powerful representations and reflections of what is beautiful and strong and innovative about indigenous people, and especially indigenous women,” she writes in an email. With the help of the Hugo House and the Poetry Foundation, Diaz is working to celebrate Native women in the literary arts.
“I have been thinking a lot about the strong community of indigenous women artists and writers whose mentorship and friendship I have benefitted from greatly,” Diaz says. “I wanted to create a space where indigenous women's voices were regarded and value — to pay it forward in a way to some of the Elders whose work and friendships have made my own work possible.”
Now Diaz is ready to share that celebration with the world. It’s an ongoing program called Poetry Across the Nations, and it launches right here in Seattle in a multi-day celebration from December 6th to 8th. On Wednesday and Friday, Diaz will be hosting workshops for Native writers — find details at the Hugo House’s website — and on Thursday, December 7th, she’ll MC a reading of Native women poets at Fred Wildlife Refuge.
All are welcome at the Thursday night reading, which is free and will feature both Seattle readers and poets from across the country. The lineup is impressive: Celeste Adame, Laura Da’, Jennifer Foerster, Casandra Lopez, Sara Ortiz, and Cedar Sigo. Da’, Sigo, and Lopez have all been kicking ass at Seattle readings for quite some time; the three of them on a bill together should be practically lethal.
In the spring, Diaz will take Poetry Across the Nation on the road, with stops in South Dakota and Arizona already planned. But Seattle gets it first. If you’ve been outraged at the way Native voices have been silenced, ignored, and ridiculed by the Trump administration, here’s an opportunity for you to elevate and celebrate those voices. It’s up to all of us to witness Native women, to let them know that they’re seen, and welcomed, and appreciated.
Fred Wildlife Refuge, 128 Belmont Ave. E., 322-7030. http://www.hugohouse.org, 7:30 pm, free.
Every Wednesday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we're asking some of our favorite Seattle authors to recommend the books they're most excited to give as gifts this holiday. Our first author is novelist Anca Szilágyi.
This spring, I cackled all the way through Elaine Dundy's novel The Dud Avocado, the story of Sally Jay Gorce, a 21-year-old American in 1950s Paris who is a delightful hot mess. It's my kind of "beach read" (if I went to beaches) and should be a welcome reprieve from the darkest months.
Reza Aslan's new book God: A Human History is a remarkable document. It lays out the entirety of human's relationship with the divine, using athropological and archaeological documentation. From pantheism to ancestor worship to monotheism, Aslan examines the way that a concept of a higher power has evolved right alongside human civilization — and also helped shape our modern world. Aslan was in Seattle last week with Seattle Arts and Lectures. We spoke on the phone shortly after his arrival in Portland for the next reading on his tour. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
I’m an atheist but I've always been very fascinated with belief and the way that you approach this book. I thought it was really informative for the purposes of talking with people about faith — and not just religious faith. At my day job, I work in messaging and political economy. And I’ve found that when we talk about raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, for example, people would respond, 'well, you can’t pay $15 per hour because the market says they’re not worth $15 per hour.' The market is a creation of people, and other nations have much higher minimum wages than we do here in America so there’s proof that it can work, but once people offload it to this inhuman, unknowable force —this market — there’s a barrier. You hit a wall in your conversation, and it seems insurmountable. Has your work with so many different religions taught you anything about talking across that wall?
If you think of a faith as a kind of worldview then it's understandable why occasionally it becomes difficult to actually have conversations. This wall that you're talking about — essentially, you're talking about two different perspectives, two different points of view. And often it's not that you are arguing over the merits of some kind of point, but what you're really doing is talking about two different ways of seeing the world. And so those kinds of conflicts sometimes come naturally.
Part of what I try to do, not just with this book but most of my works, is to try to reframe the conversation and to redefine certain terms. For instance, you call yourself an atheist, which I imagine means that you don't believe in God. But I do think that in order to actually have a conversation with you, we'd have to first talk about what you even mean by God, because it's very likely that your definition of God and my definition of God are vastly different from each other — and so having that understanding would mean that you and I perhaps are much closer in our points of view than we actually thought that we were.
And particularly when you're talking about faith issues, we have this weird perception that we all mean the same thing when we use this most complex of words, and so often the arguments that we find ourselves having dissipate once we start with this fundamental question of 'what do you mean? What is your perspective?' That's something that I try to bring to all the work that I do.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book was the way you embrace the ambiguity of the anthropological record. I think about that hackneyed idea of what would happen if an alien anthropologist found our ruined civilization in the future and if they only had access to one site, it would change their understanding of our faith. If they found a church, they would imagine us as a monotheistic religious culture. If they found a multiplex, they might think that we were a pantheistic religion worshipping superheroes. And if they found Washington DC, they might think we were big into ancestor worship. Do you think about what you’re missing when you look back on the past?
It’s a fun game to play. The difference of course being that we are products of a written culture, and once you start writing things down, those things stay forever. When we're talking about religion, however, and particularly when we're talking about prehistoric religiosity, which is where my book begins, you are talking about a preliterate culture and so that makes it much more difficult to draw conclusions with any measure of certainty.
We do have an enormous amount of material evidence at our disposal when trying to talk about things like the origins of the religious experience. We have at our disposal temples and idols and the spectacularly painted caves that bear remarkable signs of ritualistic thinking. And so we can look at this material and we can give our best guess as to what it means and how it functions.
But before the advent of writing, we are essentially shooting in the dark. What we have going for us particularly in my field of religious studies is that we can combine the anthropological and archaeological data. We can use what we know about sociology in order to draw certain conclusions and we can make pretty good guesses. But in the end, they are guesses.
In the book, you refer to the advent of agriculture as a net negative for society, and I was wondering if I could ask you about that, and maybe your perspective on how that has shaped human history.
To begin with, this is now more or less the consensus view. The traditional view was that after tens of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, we began to plant our food and domesticate animals as a means of ensuring a greater food supply, and that doing so resulted in more stable food supplies and also in more calories, more food. And that allowed us to actually settle down and then create civilization, and then, of course, history as we know it.
Well, unfortunately, that traditional view just doesn't hold up any longer to the archaeological evidence. First and foremost we now know that we human beings had settled for thousands of years before the rise of agriculture. So that upends the notion that we settled down because we started planting — now, it turns out that we settled down for quite some time before we ever thought to start planting. So that in and of itself had to have to shift the way that we even think about why we started planting.
And then secondly we now have ample evidence to indicate that far from creating a surplus of food, the agricultural revolution actually diminished our food supply — and quite dramatically. It provided far fewer calories, far less protein, and if that weren't enough, it actually introduced a whole host of ailments and diseases that were completely new to the human condition. The great Israeli historian Yuval Hariri has this great line where he says homo sapien skeletons were simply not evolutionarily designed for farming. That's just not what our bodies were meant to do. He refers to the agricultural revolution as history's greatest fraud.
Now this idea that the agricultural revolution was not an advantage to human beings raises a more fundamental question which is: why, then, why did we start doing it? Why did we start farming, knowing that a bad crop would result in the deaths of everybody in the village? Why did we start domesticating and penning animals, knowing that a disease in one of those animals would wipe out the entire herd and kill everybody in the village? Why did we do all of these things, when it required far more effort and work than hunting and gathering did, for far fewer calories? Why did we do it? It makes no sense.
There have been a number of attempts to answer that question, from environmental changes to the thinning or extinction of herds — none of which have been borne out by the evidence to date. One of the more innovative answers to that question happened to do with the institution of religion. And what I mean is, the movement from the prehistoric animism that fueled our ancient ancestors to the establishment of temples and institutionalized worship — it was the institutionalization of religion that led to the settlements, to the idea that we actually settled down and stopped wandering.
And then once we settled down, that that caused the slow move towards experimenting with agriculture and with domestication. Again, this is one of those things where we're giving our best guess. We're looking at the evidence that's available to us, and we're trying to interpret it as much as possible.
But I think that the reason that there is an enormous amount of enthusiasm for that particular interpretation of 'why agriculture?' is because all the other answers don't work. So much of what this is about is simply ticking off things that don't make any sense or that don't fit with the available data and seeing what's left.
We do know, of course, that the earliest experimentations with plants and the domestication of animals took place in southeastern Turkey and in the Levant area. These are the earliest examples of settled communities, and we also know that [these regions hosted] the earliest expression of institutionalized religion, and that those things really affected each other. And so the theory is that it was in fact the advent of hierarchical institutionalized temple-based religion that resulted in the need for the transition to agriculture, despite the fact that it was not a good bet on the part of humanity — that it did not lead in those first couple of thousand years to more food or a more stable supply.
And by the way, part of the reason why I think people even people who don't study religions gravitate toward this theory is that the one thing that we all know about religion is it makes you do things that aren't necessarily helpful. The thing about religion is that you do sometimes irrational things in the name of religion and the you know the agricultural transition was by all accounts any rational thing.
So in a way, religion also established the inequity that we still see today?
You know, the standard sociological answer to this is when we went from wandering to settled, being settled allowed for the accumulation of wealth and the disparity in society in a way that wandering would not allow. The nomadic lifestyle doesn't really allow for the accumulation of wealth, or the stratification of society. Settlement does. And if you think that settlement was a direct result of certain religious changes that took place, then yes, once again religion becomes the culprit for the sudden disparity in society.
I love your example in the book of the talking tree — the theory that we can accept one or two divergences from what we know, but that if you keep adding unbelievable ideas, you reach a breaking point.
This is a fascinating theory — and it is a theory, but it's a pretty good one. It was first developed by a cognitive anthropologist by the name of Pacal Boyer. And what he was trying to figure out was a simple question: Why do some religious beliefs stick and some don't?
Obviously, he's a scientist so the answer that is often given, which is ‘the ones that are true stick, and the ones that are false don't’ just doesn't work for him. And so he began to do these very interesting studies about how our brains actually hold onto information, and particularly when that information is anomalous in some way. Why do we hold on to it? How do we hold on to it? When do we get rid of it?
And what he discovered was exactly what you say — this thing that has been now dubbed the minimally counterintuitive concept. The basic theory is that when the mind is confronted with something that is only slightly abnormal, something that that essentially violates the core function or characteristic of a saying only slightly, there is something about the brain that holds on to that idea, that anomalous information much more so than if a thing is too anomalous.
So the example that I gave in the book is a tree that talks. A tree that talks is only slightly anomalous. It's the kind of thing that the brain holds onto and is more likely to pass on. But a tree that talks and also has the ability to be invisible and also can move from place to place — now you're violating far too many categories of the idea of a tree, and the brain simply doesn't have the ability to hold onto that. [Boyer] uses this cognitive theory to explain why some religious beliefs stick around and others do not. It’s a really fascinating idea.
Of course the thesis of my book, the point that I'm trying to make, is that of all these minimally counterintuitive concepts that have ever existed in human history, the one that is most successful is the idea of the superhuman — the human who is altered in some slight way. And that where our conception of the divine arose, is this notion of a person who has shifted in a slight way, is given a certain kind of power. That is an explanation for how this natural impulse towards transcendence — towards that which lies beyond the material realm — is something that is part of our cognitive process. It's who we are, it’s how our brains work: that natural impulse often becomes actualized or concretized in the form of a divine human, or a human who is divine, because of this minimally counter-intuitive concept that arises in our brain.
It seems to me to be an exaggeration of something that’s a standard part of the human experience. Your knowledge, your experiences, make you special — kind of a superhuman. That’s why we contacted your publicist for an interview and why we’re talking. Everyone does something special — you know, I make a pretty okay chili. So is this search for the supernatural a recognition of us as we are or is it a desire for more? Is it aspirational, or is it a reflection?
It’s a reflection, it's an innate compulsion. One thing that I make very clear in the book is that I'm not making an argument for the existence or nonexistence of God. That's not an argument I am interested in having — mainly because there is no proof either way.
What I am interested in is how we have expressed faith. It is deeply embedded in this cognitive impulse that you were referring to, this innate unconscious compulsion to humanize the divine — to essentially project one's own personality, one's own emotions one's own virtues and vices and strengths and weaknesses and biases and bigotries upon the divine.
What’s truly remarkable about this impulse, and why I think it's just a function of our brains, is that even atheists do this. When you say to someone who is a you know an atheist, who doesn't believe in God, studies show that when you ask that person to then describe what they mean by God, they do what believers do. They begin to describe a kind of divine version of themselves. They begin to talk about a divine personality who looks and feels and acts and thinks very much the way that they do. So it doesn't matter whether you're a believer or not, it doesn't matter whether you are aware of it or not. The fact of the matter is that most of us when we think of the idea of God, what we do is we think of a divine version of ourselves.
You have a few passages in the book where you write about soul, and I thought some of the passages seemed to be in conversation with Lesley Hazleton’s book on agnosticism, and I was curious if you had read it or if if that was something coincidental.
I have read Lesley's book — I think I actually even blurbed it — but no, that's not in in conversation with anyone. The issue is that we were born with this conception of substance dualism, this innate notion that there is a distinction between the body and mind. What that means, nobody knows — it doesn't prove God, it doesn't disprove God. It doesn't mean that we are believers and we have to learn to be unbelievers. We don't know what it means, but it is a fact, and studies have routinely pointed this out. So it must be part of again our cognitive impulses, must be just a thing that happens in our brains. What I'm interested in, is what that actually means and how and how to make sense of that.
Evolutionarily speaking, we don't have a good answer for the universal belief in what is come to be called the soul. You can call it what you want: you can call it the psyche if you want to, you can call it Brahma, you can call it whatever you want, but we all mean the same thing — this kind of spiritual essence, if you will. It's universal. It exists in all cultures, in all religions, and throughout all time. And we don't know why! There isn't a good reason to explain this innate sense. And so I go back to where I began the book, which is ultimately it's just a choice.
It’s a decision on the individual's part to give that fact some kind of meaning. And you could be someone who says ‘it's just an accident, just a meaningless cognitive blip.’ Or you could be someone who thinks that it's not just on purpose, but it's by design: it's who is how we are made it's who we are and we're supposed to have that that feeling, that sense of innate spiritual essence. We’re back where we started, right? It's up to you! There's no proof either way.
But I do think that at the very least coming to an understanding of these things is a good way to start a conversation between people, between believers and nonbelievers, and between believers of different religions.
This Saturday, a familiar face in Seattle literary circles makes a welcome return to the scene. In 2011, Margot Kahn, who was well-known in the community for her work as a youth creative writing program director at Hugo House, published her first book — an excellent biography titled Horses That Buck: The Story of Champion Bronc Rider Bill Smith. Saturday night at Elliott Bay Book Company, with the help of readers including Claudia Castro Luna, Kate Lebo, and Jane Wong, Kahn introduces her second book, an anthology she co-edited with Kelly McMasters titled This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Kahn talked with me on the phone this week about how the book came to be and what she's been up to in the time between books. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited.
It’s been a few years since Horses That Buck came out. What have you been up to between then and now?
I've been mostly raising a small human being, and that has occupied a lot of time. I've also been doing some writing for a couple of freelance publications — Edible Seattle and a couple of other places.
How did the idea for this anthology come to you?
As I said, almost seven years ago I had a baby, and I found myself at home more than I thought I would be as a parent.
I don't really know what I was expecting. I guess in part I did expect that I was going to take a brief leave of absence from the Hugo House and then return. And when it was time for me to go back, the House was in a bit of a different place than when I left it. I look back on that and think I probably should have done it, but they were asking me to do even more than what I had been doing when I left and I just didn't feel like I could at that moment in time.
At that time, I don't think anybody at the House had had a baby, and part of what seemed overwhelming to me was, I didn't know where I was going to nurse, and I didn't think anybody was going to get what I was going through, and there were sort of no parameters put into place for someone having a kid, and I just didn't feel like I could advocate for myself and my time in that way.
So anyway, I stayed home and got to thinking. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. My grandparents had come to this country from Poland as World War II was getting started — they got out at basically the last possible moment. When I was with them when I was younger, I would always ask them to tell me stories about their growing-up years, and they had these wonderful, nostalgic, beautiful, fond memories. But also their stories of home were wrapped up with a lot of pain and they really only talked about home when I asked them to. I always carried that with me, and I really was always trying to understand what that must have been like for them, to leave a place that they loved so dearly to never go back, and to make a whole new life somewhere else.
And then fast-forward to my having a child and thinking about what making a home means — not just for myself but for someone else. And in between there was the general kind of moving about in one's 20s — or many people in their 20s, anyway — where, you know, it's one rental after another and kind of trying to decide where to live.
And then I was settling on a place that I felt good about, while not really totally understanding at the time that I was settling down. And then I was becoming a part of a community and buying a house and putting down roots somewhere, when that somewhere isn't the same place where my family is. At some point, it's like, “oh, wait! What have I done?”
All of those things sort of fed into my thinking about what makes a home. And every other perspective about homes that I read was really informative, and so this idea of an anthology, of a collection of voices of many different people grappling with the same idea, became really interesting to me.
The rule for anthologies is generally to make the theme as specific as possible. But this is a super wide-angle topic that goes in the opposite direction of that rule. But it works! Was it hard to get your contributors to stay on topic, or did people just immediately get what you were what you were going for with the theme?
I think people really did get what we were going for.
Where the work came was in whittling things down. That was really the hardest part. We wound up having a few pieces about moving around a lot, and we didn't want a few pieces about moving around a lot. We wound up getting a couple pieces about living in a very small space, and we had to choose one of them. We had a couple pieces about living in the West and sort of hardscrabble solitude and we had to choose one.
That’s the work I'd say came in in the curation. And we were very committed to having a diverse range of voices in every aspect we could think of, from age and geography and race and ethnicity to subject matter. All the things that we read were pretty amazing, and it was a question of which pieces are hanging together, and which pieces speak to each other.
Who belongs here? Who is welcome? Who is a part of this community?
Was the book always specifically related to women’s perspectives on the home?
It was, but we did grapple with that question. Kelly and I said to ourselves, and each other, "are we losing anything by not having men be a part of this? Are we perpetuating a stereotype that the woman's place is in the home? Are we marginalizing men in some way? Are we creating something that is not taking the dialogue in the direction that we can or should be going?"
Ultimately we what we came to is that traditionally and historically, the home has been seen as the domain of the woman. We wanted to address that — in this day and age, what does that mean for women? And in large part, we've been raised by our mothers and grandmothers — in fact, that is a thread that we saw throughout the book: mothers or grandmothers appear in almost every essay. And women's voices are still statistically not as represented [in publishing], so we wanted to have this place for women's voices to be heard, with [Seal Press,] a press that has been dedicated to publishing women's voices since 1976.
One interesting thing to both me and Kelly is that when we conceived of this book it was three years ago and we were really not thinking so much about politics. We were honestly thinking about own our own personal stories and wanting to hear other personal stories. And then it became a possibility that we were going to have a woman in the White House. It was going to be a whole new ballgame. And then suddenly that was not the case at all.
And so many of those issues come up in this book in some way, shape, or form. This thread of belonging, this sense of safety, and the longing that is at the heart of our assumptions or perceptions or being. That image of what home should be. And that feeling that we're seeking, and all the conversations we're having now on the national political stage, really boil down to the same questions: who belongs here? Who is welcome? Who is made to feel safe? Who is a part of this community?
What’s next for you? Another anthology?
I haven't thought about the next anthology, but I would be psyched to do one. I had so much fun working on this book. I never really thought that anthologies would be something that I would do, but having done it, it's like it's like the best kind of curation project — like organizing the best dinner party ever and inviting the most interesting, awesome people and having this fantastic conversation. So, yeah, I would do an anthology again for sure.
I'm thinking about doing another biography, actually. I said I would never do that again after the first one just because it took so long, and I got so involved in other people's lives, but there is somebody I'm interested in writing about.
And I also have started a novel that’s set in a community garden in Seattle. it’s about community and gentrification and gardening. I don't know if that's really going to happen, but that's sort of a fun side project.
Last month, New Zealand author Nic Low came to Seattle for almost two weeks as part of an ongoing native author exchange program facilitated by the Seattle City of Literature organization. As part of Lit Crawl, Low appeared onstage at the Hugo House with Seattle author Willie Fitzgerald. The morning after Lit Crawl, he met with me to share his thoughts about the trip, and how Christchurch and Seattle could grow together as literary cities. This interview, obviously, took place before Seattle was named a UNESCO City of Literature, but that designation makes Low's thoughts on a cultural exchange even more relevant.
So you've been here for ten days. What are your impressions? What has your visit to Seattle been like?
Well, I'm still on a good high from Lit Crawl last night. I'm always excited when a whole city comes out — whatever the event is, something that draws a whole lot of people out into the public space. Because writing often happens behind closed doors, publishing happens behind closed doors. It's not always a particularly public art form. So when you get something like Lit Crawl, it's really exciting.
I loved going to see [Claudia Castro Luna’s] Poetic Grid [presentation]. I loved hearing all the different poets read, and seeing the photographs and the maps correlated. I've been hiring the Spin bikes and also walking everywhere, to get a feel for the geography. So to then overlay that with poets’ impressions of that geography was really enriching. I enjoyed that a lot.
I also loved the Jack Straw Writers who were on before that. Really cool to see a - I was going to say a younger generation but that's not right, because they're really from all different generations. But the Jack Straw Fellows are doing some really exciting work.
We had a lovely catch-up with the Jack Straw Writers a couple of days ago, and they shared stories of what they're working on. I was super-impressed with the diversity of that group — a really broad range of perspectives: people writing about their personal experiences growing up; people writing about experiences of being native but not living on your home territory; people writing about sexual violence; people writing about a whole range of different topics, but all from really beautifully crafted points of view. I like getting down and soaking those kind of things up.
Another real highlight has been connecting with various different First Nations groups here, and sharing stories with them. I'm Ngāi Tahu — I'm Maori — and that's a very big part of who I am, what I write. So to hear some of the stories and the histories from people who've been here six, eight, ten thousand years is really exciting.
I went down to Tacoma for an event down there. They’re touring a totem pole around the Lummi Nation in solidarity with the fight against various fossil fuel projects. And I met a wonderful writer, Rena Priest, who's a Lummi woman, and she'd written a piece specifically for that occasion. Really great to connect across those cultural boundaries as well.
You also skipped up to Vancouver?
I did. It's a bit of a stupid way to organize a schedule, but it's entirely my fault from just saying “yes” to everything. I had an event in Vancouver not last night but the night before. And then I've got another event in Vancouver tomorrow. So I'm going back to Vancouver on the first plane tomorrow morning.
So you've been south, you haven't been all the way down to Portland, but you've been to Tacoma, you've been up to Vancouver. Does it feel like a region in your brief experience, or is the national border significant to you?
I sent a photograph back to my partner back in Australia at the point where we went across the border and we just had a view of ocean. And I sent her a message that said ‘Canada to the right, America to the left.’ It's just ocean! These lines are always mildly arbitrary, and I think the arbitrariness of that emerges when you are hanging out with First Nations people, whose territory boundaries have no relationship.
I mean, they obviously have a very important relationship to that national boundary now. But predating European settlement, the fluidity — or just the different tribal territories, and the overlap and the trade — seeing the shared knowledge between indigenous people up and down that coast? There's a real familiarity to that.
I've been watching the weather patterns very closely and seeing if I can get myself into the hills at all. We got one day hiking in the Cascades, which was lovely — you can sort of see that coastline, the consistent vegetation. I know, from the map and from photographs sort of what the geography looks like. But it's basically been raining the whole time —
Yeah, it has.
So we haven't seen so much of it.
It's appropriate. It's seasonally appropriate.
The book I'm working on, as you know from the talk last night, is the history of mountains in New Zealand. And I really was, and still am, keen to get up into the mountains as much as possible here. But my crampons haven't got much of a workout yet.
They're intense. I'm from the east coast — I'm from Maine, which is other corner — and the mountains here are much more impressive than they are there.
I did catch one glimpse of Rainier out there, sitting proud. It's like a magnet to me. I was like, 'I want to go there.' But it wasn't possible.
It's very impressive. And it’s a volcano, too, so in a lot of ways it could just as well be our death on the horizon. At some point we could be Pompeii.
Oh wow. A fossilized Seattle. Just everybody caught with their lattes in one hand, with their phones in their other hand.
Yeah. People of the future wouldn't be able to tell your fossil from a Seattleite, with the coffee cup in your hand.
No they wouldn't. And I think that is one of the interesting things. I travel a lot and you do, on the one hand, brace yourself for strangeness and difference, but on the other hand you often find similarity and connection.
There's such commonality in culture now. We read so much that comes out of America. There's such great cross-influence in terms of media, in terms of internet, in terms of the technologies that now guide our lives.
I’ve certainly been struck by the degree of homelessness here.
I guess also there are some differences. I’ve certainly been struck by the degree of homelessness here. That stands out like a sore thumb, and it has made me feel pretty uncomfortable. It's confronting. It's really confronting to see that level of poverty hard up against this level of wealth. I guess I'm used to that level of poverty in very poor countries, but not in the rich countries.
Yeah. It's gotten out of control in the last ten years. I mean, it's always been there, but it is something that this city has not been responsible in keeping up with.
Yeah. It's a whole another long and complicated conversation.
I'm certainly curious to know how those demographics have shifted, of who constitutes the homeless. Because you have your stereotypical people, and then I've seen a whole lot of people who don't fit the stereotype. I've seen lots of people who look like they might not have been on the streets for that long, or have come from a whole range of different backgrounds.
It's certainly eye-opening in that respect.
There’s a study that found when the average rent in a city increases by $100, the homelessness population increases by 15 percent.
Seriously? That's the correlation?
Yeah. So you are seeing people who you would not normally see as homeless, because they are not ordinarily homeless.
Gosh that's a thin line, $100. That's a very thin line.
Yeah. It is a very thin line. It is the first thing that a lot of visitors notice and we have to do something to help. But to bring it back to books: So Seattle has several sister cities. Reykjavik, is one, and we have a pretty good cultural exchange going with Reykjavik. What do you think that the relationship between Christchurch and Seattle could be or should be? What do you think we have to learn from each other? It's a big question, sorry.
It's a big question, but a couple of immediate things spring to mind. The first one is what we talked about before with the Seattle Poetic Grid. I can see the usefulness of that, obviously, in the context of the literary exchange. And to bring writers back on a regular basis, to be mapping each other's cities, to be providing outside viewpoints.
I really like the idea of locals learning from visitors, and visitors learning from locals. There was one poem in the Grid that was from someone who'd been in the city for 24 hours, and it was an observation of tents under a freeway. Interesting that that was what struck him, or her.
We've been talking about a few different potential models. One thing is perhaps to have writers go in pairs. Imagine that I come back next year and bring another writer with me, and we do a project. And then the next year, that other writer comes back and brings someone new with them in a kind of an iterative process, so that they can make introductions and show people around, and vice versa. So get Elissa [Washuta, who visited New Zealand as a Seattle author through this program last year] back to Christchurch and get her to bring someone with her, and just roll it on that way.
Another area that immediately springs to mind is our relationship with the outdoors. Christchurch is really an incredible gateway to the mountains. An hour’s drive, you're in the snow, you're on a ski field, you're strapping on your crampons, you're ready to go. A couple of hours and you're in the absolute heart of the Southern Alps. So mountain culture, rock climbing, mountain running, mountain biking — all these things that you guys love, are absolutely alive and well in Christchurch.
I suppose this is sort of the work that I've been doing. I've been doing so much around place and wilderness and outdoors, but from a cultural and literary point of view. I'd love to see some kind of program that combines taking people into the outdoors and exposing them to the literature of the outdoors.
Like a kind of mountain writing festival perhaps, that happens in Seattle one year and in Christchurch the next. And then maybe the events take place somewhere in the mountains, or maybe it's a series of trips with conversation while walking, writers out on the trail discussing various different ideas about place and belonging.
You've already mentioned that you’re working on a non-fiction book about mountains. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I grew up in the mountains. In all of our spare time we got taken up what we call tramping, what you would call hiking. The Southern Alps were a really big part of my dad's youth. He's always loved the mountains, and so when we were old enough to carry our school bags up, we went. And that really runs in the family. My whole extended family on dad's side are very much mountain people, and I knew the stories and the histories.
On my mother’s side, we are Ngāi Tahu, and we are more often than not thought of as coastal people. I knew the histories in the stories of the plains and coasts, but I didn't really know what our associations were with the mountains.
So I wanted to write a book that put those two things in dialog, my European heritage of mountaineering and climbing and exploring, and my Maori heritage of — whatever that looked like. I didn't really know what that looked like. But I assumed that, because hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of those rivers, peaks, valleys — they're all named. So if they're named, people knew them, there would be stories associated with them. I set out to try and find what those stories were.
Fast-forward three years, and I would spend a very long time in those mountains. I've done 15 long-distance journeys though the Alps. I'm going to write about ten of them. They're the pre-European routes we used for trade, for exploration, for family visits, for warfare. There’s a lot of mythology, our creation stories. It’s very, very central to our sense of identity and place.
There's a lot of books out there that talk about wilderness. We have a great fascination with explorers. But often the people that were exploring had guides; more often than not, they were guided. The places that they were discovering were all known, they were named. They were celebrated in long and deep histories. So I want to bring some of those histories to the surface, and I'd like to write this book in a way that gets people excited about both sides of those histories, so that when they go out into the mountains they see that overlay. They know who was here, what they were doing and why, and they understand the names that are on the land.
Portland illustrator and cartoonist Daria Tessler is coming to the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival for the second time this year. She makes beautiful illustrations that feel like a blend of children’s book illustrations and 1970s countercultural comics. You can find her booth in the show and she’ll also be performing in The Midnight Variety Hour, described as an “active participatory performance” at the Vera Project at noon.
Are you bringing anything new to the show?
Yes, I have Accursed, a book of ancient curses that was lavishly published by Perfectly Acceptable Press earlier this year. It's a 4 color riso book with a snazzy letterpressed cover. I also hope to finish a last-minute minicomic. Plus I'll have a few new silkscreens.
Are there any artists you're excited to see at Short Run this year?
I'm really excited to meet an artist whose Instagram name is abrownrecluse, and whose real name is Jordan, who makes incredible stippled and layered drawings and minicomics. We plan to collaborate on a book project next year.
You've got a comic coming out from Fantagraphics next year! Do you see yourself moving away from minicomics and into the publishing side of things, or are you going to continue with a blend of self-produced and "professionally" published works?
I love hand-making books and printing small run publications using print methods other than offset printing. I'm sure I'll continue to work with those alternate types of bookmaking because they offer a different feel or mood and a special more personal art object. But working with a bigger publisher is great, you can create books that are more affordable to all kinds of readers and they get good distribution and you reach a larger audience. So both seem important to me.
Illustrator Taylor Wright Rushing was born and raised in Washington State. He moved to Austin for a year and then entered grad school in Madison, Wisconsin. We talked on the phone last week. You can find him at the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival this Saturday at Seattle Center.
Is this your first Short Run or have you been before?
This is my first one.
How did you become a Short Run exhibitor?
I applied originally for the Dash Grant that they offer. They're one of the few organizations that offers a grant for small publishers — whether it's for a zine or a comic book. I just couldn't believe all that they had to offer as such a small organization.
From there, I was offered a table at the festival and I just was so delighted. I'm from Washington originally, so it was totally a treat to have an excuse to come home and do something fun.
Have you done any shows like this before in your neck of the woods?
I've done a few small shows, but nothing of this scale. I'm pretty involved in the small press community here in Wisconsin. But, you know, I went to Evergreen, so coming from Washington, it’s like the zine capital of America. It's kind of a treat be able to come home and do something so huge. I didn't realize that Short Run is as big as it is.
It gets bigger every year. Are you bringing anything new to Short Run this year, any brand new stuff to show off?
I've got a bunch of stuff. I do a lot of independent research around the 78 RPM old country music and blues music scene and I do a lot of small stuff associated with that. I have three new zines that I've come out with this year that are specific to the independent research that I've done regarding different musicians that I love and listen to. I've got some posters and I've got some bandannas that I've made.
Is there anybody at Short Run that you're excited to meet this time?
To be honest with you, I'm so excited to meet everyone. There's just such a slew of totally badass illustrators and makers. The thing that I love so much about the zine and small-press community is that everyone can do it. So no matter who you are, whether you're a professional illustrator or graphic designer or if you're literally someone who just makes in your living room, that's what this community is for. I am just so excited to see the workshops, the performances — this is just a dream scenario for me. And to get to come home and see a lot of artists who I grew up looking at — it's a blast!
I was wondering if you had any advice for people who are going to a show for the first time and maybe have just made their first zine or mini-comic and are looking to show it off.
This is the ultimate question for me, because in my mind this stuff is meant for everyone. There's something so beautiful about the idea that you can make something in your living room and create it on a copy machine and make something that everyone can look at.
I'm so interested in folk culture, and that’s something that the zine community nurtures — everyone going out and doing something and being creative. Especially in this day and age, there's no one way to be good at drawing. You can make the most clunky, weirdest looking characters and they will be lionized as the greatest. That's what I love about this whole scene. That’s what it's all about. There's no one way to be good at anything, and there's a million ways to make beautiful mistakes. That's what this is all about.
Is there anything you want attendees of Short Run to know about you?
This is my first major thing and I am really at the beginning of my career as an illustrator/artist/whatever you want to call me. And it would be a real treat to get to meet some people and interact with people who want to engage in my work. I would be absolutely delighted and I really look forward to that.
The word I’ve most often applied to our October poet in residence, Kary Wayson, is “patience.” Wayson’s poetry feels deliberate and constructed in a way that the work of many Seattle poets does not. Every word is there for a reason, and if you were to extract even one syllable, the whole thing would crumble to a pile of typeface at the bottom of the page. In a literary scene that tends toward expressionistic and reactionary poetry, Wayson stands out as a contemplative figure.
And too, Wayson isn’t one of those poets who overwhelms with frequent appearances. Though she regularly teaches poetry classes at Hugo House, months and even years have passed without Wayson’s name appearing on the poster for a major reading. It doesn’t feel like she’ll just apply her time talent to any old event. She is a writer who does not produce a lot of work, who doesn’t overwhelm with her presence, and that makes her a refreshing rarity in 2017.
Ask Wayson about her poetic patience, though, and she’ll attribute it to more practical reasons. “I've always sort of worked the opposite hours of everybody else,” she explains. When she left school, she wanted to find a career that provided “the best money I could make for having the most amount of free time, which is in restaurants.” Wayson has waited tables for many years, and so the prime time for readings — nights and weekends — has been largely inaccessible to her.
Occasionally, Wayson tells me she wishes she could be more of a part of the scene. “Sometimes I feel, like, ‘I’ve got to change my life. I got to get a day job — a real job, where I can take time off of work and get paid for it and be a part of the literary community.’ And then other times it seems perfectly fine.”
As a writer, she’s very deliberate: poetry is an exacting quest for perfection. She uses the term “etched in stone” to describe her work. She describes her process as “a slow accretion” and says she wants to build something sturdy, something “that lasts” for years — generations.
Lately, she’s been reading the work of John Ashbery and Richard Wilbur. “I spent the morning exhuming this poem of [Wilbur’s]. Each syllable is chosen with care.” That’s important to her. “It’s almost an affront to me when the work is sloppy,” Wayson confesses. Poetry is “not just something that’s broken into lines. It’s something that has been labored over.”
But there’s another reason beyond perfectionism why Wayson hasn’t been reading her poetry in public. Until a couple months ago, she admits, “I hadn’t written anything for probably three years.”
This seems hard to believe. She hasn’t written anything at all? “I’ve done journaling and some little failed attempts, but, no. Really, nothing.”
Thankfully for us, the dry spell is over. “The writing is coming out now,” she says, relieved. “But it’s got these strangenesses,” she says. And she’s been doing work “letting strangeness of syntax, and strangeness of ideas, and strangeness of image stay there [in the poem] hopefully in a way that’s not just weird but achieves something.”
Is it appropriate to say that Wayson is working at giving up a little bit of control of her work? “Yeah!” She seems excited by the idea, “and it’s something that I don’t want to figure out because then it might go away. I want to support it.”
Wayson is now experimenting with techniques to bring weirdness to her work. She’ll copy pieces of her journal entries backwards, word-for-word, just to see what kind of juxtapositions that will draw out. She’ll then explore those unexpected connections in poetry.
So what’s next for her? “I have a manuscript that I've been shopping around that’s been a near-miss at some really nice presses for years,” she says. She hasn’t given up hope on that one — “I’m still working on that, and that will probably be the next thing that comes out” from her in book form.
And the new work is still coming strong. “I have something right now that I’m working on that feels like it will be a thing,” she says, and her enthusiasm for the work is palpable. “I’m not talking Rilke here,” she qualifies, “but for me, it’s something I can hang my hat on.”
Is that thrilling to feel, after such a long drought? “Yeah, it’s nice to know it’s there, and it’s nice to have been doing this for long enough now that I know to not press it,” Wayson says.
She’s learned that much of crafting a piece of writing, for her, “is doing it and then stopping and letting it be, and then going back and trying some more, and then probably fucking it up a little bit, and taking that back out.”
“It really all takes such a huge amount of time,” Wayson says. That’s not a complaint, coming from her. In fact, she sounds like she’s having fun.
Last week, Seattle cartoonist DW recommended a cartoonist who posts on Instagram under the pseudonym Seattle Walk Report. I’d never heard of her before, but when I looked her up I could easily understand why she was a favorite.
Seattle Walk Report’s cartoons track various data points from her walks through Seattle. She might count all the pumpkins she sees, or make a running tally of newspaper boxes, or notice that every single paneled parapet on the Montlake Bridge had its own spider web inside, or write little love notes to dogs she meets while walking around town. “I’ve been seeing a steady increase in sidewalk nachos,” she writes in one installment, “BUT WHERE ARE THEY COMING FROM?”
Seattle Walk Report responded quickly to a direct message, and she seemed happy to talk on the phone. The anonymity of her pseudonym isn’t iron clad: She identifies herself as in her late 20s and kindly offers her first name when I comment on how awkward it is to call another person “Seattle Walk Report.” But for reasons she explains in the interview, she finds the anonymity to be freeing.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How did you get started? Did the walking come first and then the cartooning? Or did they happen at the same time?
Well, they're both intertwined. Like many walks, I think, it’s a long story, so I might ramble a little bit here.
I was born and raised in Seattle, and I've never lived anywhere else — even for a second. I don't know how to drive, and I've never learned. So I've always relied on walking, or buses, or the kindness of others to get around. The walking component was not something I found much joy in until very recently; it was just a means to an end for much of my life.
But something happened earlier this year, and the pure joy of long, winding, destinationless walks really hit me. It was kind of like —, you know in cartoons, when somebody gets hit by a piano, and they wake up and there's birds over their head and their teeth are piano keys? It was kind of like that. I woke up one morning, and it just felt like something was different. And I would wake up on a day off, and I would leave with no destination. And sometimes nine, ten hours later, I would come back, and that was just how I spent my day. It didn't even feel like a conscious decision. It was just my mind and my body telling me to get out there.
I thought I knew Seattle really well, having never lived anywhere else, but I can honestly say that before I started to take the time to slow down and take these walks, I really don't feel like I knew the half of it. Or the quarter of it. I still don't know that I do. Seattle's really started to unfold in a way that I hadn't seen before. Or maybe I hadn't taken the time to see it before — I'm not really sure.
Anyway, I've always been a person who draws, and when I was little my mom would say that I was born with a pencil in my hand; and I believed her literally until I was an embarrassing 10 or 11 years old. I thought, ‘wow, that's a really cute coincidence', and, ‘ouch, that must have hurt.’
I just crossed my legs.
But anything I've ever done artistically has really just been pretty much for myself — just art for art's sake. In high school, I would spend weeks or months working on some little, tiny minicomic just for myself. I'd complete it, and I'd smile, and I'd put it on my shelf, and I'd move on to the next thing. It was always for me and never really for anyone else.
I always imagined that I would die and the guy with the push broom who comes to clear out people's apartments who have died would find this shelf full of comics and books and all this crazy stuff that I had made that I had never shared with anybody. I imagined him with his push broom being like, ‘Whoa, this is some weird stuff.’
In addition to drawing, I've always really loved mundane data. Like the library has a subscription to a database called Statistica. It has a really great search functionality, so sometimes I'd just sit there and type in ‘Funions,’ and I'll see the average American household ate two or less bags of Funions in 2011. I just loved that kind of thing.
So walking really made me reconnect with Seattle, and reconnecting with Seattle made me walk. It was this really satisfying loop, and that was my first revelation. Then my second revelation came when I realized I could combine this love of walking with drawing and with data collection.
I thought it would be another one of those projects that I'd be happy to keep to myself, like some sort of journal or something. Because after a while the walks kind of all start to blur together. So I thought this would just be a fun way for me to remember these walks, and where I went, or what I saw on them, or how many crosswalks I crossed, or that kind of thing.
I decided one day to go out and just record what I see. I didn't have some deep goal in mind with it. And when I got home, I turned it into a drawing, and I wrote "Seattle Walk Report" at the top without thinking about it.
I closed my notebook that I had drawn it in, and I just felt this overwhelming sort of — it felt like there was something there that needed to be said about Seattle that wasn't being said. And for the first time with anything I've ever done, I really felt like this drawing needed to be somewhere for somebody else to connect with and see.
So I downloaded Instagram for the first time in my life, and I registered Seattle Walk Report. I posted it, not thinking anyone would ever see it or ever care, but wanting to know that it was there for people to see and care about if they felt like it.
It just went from there. The feedback loop grew stronger in terms of me walking to draw and drawing to walk in Seattle. It all just kind of wove together into this perfect little thing.
I didn't tell anyone I was going to do it. I didn't come up with a cute name first, and then try to figure it out. I just did it, and I didn't have a fully formed idea of what I was doing. I still don't. It's evolved so much. It was just born out of walking, and raised by walking, and will probably die by walking. Anyway, that's the long, winding story of it all.
That's fantastic. What do you think, specifically, about the evolution when you look back on the last four months, five months? How long has it been?
I think July 1st was when I started it. When I first started out, I felt this desire to use the knowledge that I have of Seattle's neighborhoods to impose my own ideas about what might unfold during that walk, instead of just letting the city be whatever it is that day. I would actively seek out certain things at the detriment of actually seeing what was there.
In one of my earliest ones, I knew I was going to be walking around in South Lake Union so I was like, ‘okay, I'll probably see closed sidewalks, and I'll probably see Starbucks cups on the ground, and I'll probably see some baby ducks.’ And so I went out to tally those things, since it seemed like I would probably find them there, and that's fine. But it was almost like I was writing a narrative and pigeon-holing the walk, or the place, before even setting out on it.
Once I let go of that sort of narrative, and just started to walk with no preconceived notions of what I would see, I think things just really started to pop off. Right around the time that I let go of that, people started commenting, ‘This one was really good.’ Or, like, ‘this has really gotten a lot better.’ Then I did start to put more effort into it, because before I would just do it over 15 minutes on my lunch break.
I actually just found out about you last week, because a cartoonist named DW who moved to Seattle just a few months ago recommended you as one of his favorite cartoonists.
That's so nice.
I've been doing long walks for a few years now, and I've written a little about it, and every once in a while I'll tweet while I'm out on a walk or something. And people have told me, "You should write a book about this." And I love walking, but the point of walking is to be sort of monotonous, right? It's literally one step in front of the other. But the way you handle it, I think, is really interesting.
It really speaks to me about the quotidian nature of walking, and just what it's like to go out on a walk and to observe at a very natural, very slow pace. Have your cartoons always been sort of like data collection or did you just start doing that with the walking?
There's always been kind of an element of that. I’ve always been interested in taking things that people think they know and adding some sort of new layer to it. I've found through this that there are other people out there doing this exact same thing in a different way, moreso than I realized.
Like the number of messages I've gotten from people who are like, ‘oh, my gosh, I thought I was the only person who always remembered my favorite dog I saw on a walk.’ Just that there are other people out there quietly doing this exact same thing in their heads. And that's pretty cool — to find that kind of quiet community out there, and kind of bring people together. I was not expecting the response to be what it was. I really thought I'd be playing to an audience of myself, just in as more public way than I normally do.
And so to have people resonate, to have it resonate with people, and have people message me and say, ‘you're my hero’ and ‘this has changed how I see Seattle’ — it just blows my mind a little bit.
So you have over 700 followers on Instagram. How did those numbers grow? It's been a relatively short time. Did you get everybody all at once or have there been little plateaus, or what?
It's been super, super steady from the beginning. Every day a couple more people. I haven't had one day where I wake up and see that I’ve gotten 100 people — nothing like that. I think people find it just by stumbling on it, or people hear about it from somebody else. It's been kind of a word of mouth thing.
There are people who know me really well who don't know that I'm doing this. There are people who I work with who follow me, and they don't know that I am this person I don't see myself as part of the Seattle comics community, because I've never met anybody in it or gone to any of the things that you're supposed to go to if you're part of that. But I have followed certain Seattle cartoonists that I stumble across [on Instagram], and then they'll follow me back and that kind of thing. So it's just been a steady sort of growth.
So, say you inspire somebody to walk, which I imagine has probably happened. Is there any walk that you would recommend as a particularly surprising one for people want to get a feel for Seattle as a walking city?
This might be a little bit long for the new walker, but I'd say give it a shot and see what happens: I really like the South Lake Union walk. I like walking around South Lake Union — starting near MOHAI and going the entire way around — because you get to see such a variety of things. It's a relatively flat walk. There's Gas Works along the way. There's Fremont. You get to go over bridges. You get to go under bridges. It's relatively quiet. There's nice views. Especially if somebody is new to the city in general, I really recommend that walk just to get a feel for the sort of sights there are to see around.
Discovery Park — for some reason, growing up I didn't spend a lot of time there, and so I've discovered it for the first time. I'd recommend either just walking to Discovery Park from wherever you are, or taking the bus there — driving there, whatever — and giving that a shot. Because that's another place that has a lot of variety, and beautiful views.
I'd also say to walk down Airport Way and see what happens. If you like interesting trash, and sights, you can achieve a good sort of rhythmic zen state on Airport Way.
There's also buses everywhere so you can take back if you get tired.
Yeah. And definitely on the South Lake Union walk, there's multiple points where you can just bail on it.
And there are public bathrooms at MOHAI, and again at Gas Works Park. Because bathrooms are a real concern on these long walks.
PCC in Fremont has bathrooms that they don't care if you use all day every day.
I'm sure they'll be pleased about you telling people that. But it's important! There aren't a lot of open restrooms. In October through April a lot of the public park bathrooms just close down. Because you obviously don't need to go to the bathroom from October to April.
Weirdly, even though you’re anonymous, I think that you're a really good ambassador for walking in the city. Even though you don’t use your name, the work feels really personal.
I think when I first really grasped on to what it was that I was doing, I realized that being mostly anonymous enhances my ability to be an invisible observer, and just to report out. I think that really strengthens the work.
If you were a walker, too, it's probably likely that we've stood at the same crosswalk or walked by each other. I think that's kind of like a cool, human thing. And I like being able to be amongst people at any time and have them not know who I am, or what I'm doing, even if they are one of the 720 people who know my work.
So I don't mind sharing certain things about myself or my comics, and people can certainly figure out a lot about me and what I care about through my comics. To know Seattle Walk Report is to know me pretty darn well. I don't know if readers would have a greater appreciation or understanding of Seattle Walk Report, if they knew my face, or my job, or my favorite Beatle, or whatever. I don't know. We'll see.
There is certainly anonymity to walking. Every once in a while I will see older versions of me out on the Interurban Trail and we’ll nod to each other, but generally, I don't recognize anyone. When I started doing this, I thought I was very much alone. I thought I was the only human being who has walked from Westwood Village in West Seattle to Shoreline, from city limits to city limits across the city diagonally, in a single day. But now I'm starting to realize that there is this culture out there. And hearing you talk about it certainly has helped solidify that there is a walking culture here. But it's a culture of people who like to be alone.
One of the first things people will say when I talk about my walks is, ‘oh, we should go walking together sometime.’ And it always makes me uncomfortable to respond ambivalently, but part of the reason I do these walks is to be alone. Has that happened to you too?
So many people have messaged me on Instagram saying, ‘we should go on a walk sometime.’ And I'm like, you have no idea how — first of all — how horrendous that would be for you.
If you want the worst time of your life, go on a walk with me. I'll just pop in my headphones, and get out my notebook, and ignore you for six hours. And you'll be exhausted, or you will have left hours ago, and I'm still walking, and I didn't even know you were gone.
I really appreciate people reaching out to me, but I do think it is such a solitary venture. Maybe sometime I can go on a walk with somebody where they go on a walk, and I go on a walk, and we're not together; and we just report back on what we saw, and that can be spending time together. That would be perfect situation for me.
Do you enjoy nature walks, too? I know you mentioned Discovery Park, but that's walkable from the city. Have you ever been the sort of person who's into hiking?
Not really. I'm definitely more of a city walker. I definitely appreciate the contrast, but I think I really like to fill out the map in my mind. I really like to think ‘there's no way I could get from Woodinville to the U District,’ and then go do it.