Cathy Malkasian’s fourth comic, Eartha, is a tense and gorgeous journey. Reading Malkasian’s comics is perhaps the closest equivalent to dreaming that you can experience while you’re awake. The comics feel raw and mysterious and unsettling and more than a little dangerous.
The titular character in Eartha is a naïve young woman who sets out to return dreams to her society. The book feels entirely set in the subconscious — a world in which people read four-word news blurbs printed on biscuits and then perform their emotions of distress about the news in public.
This Saturday, to celebrate the release of Eartha, Malkasian will appear in conversation with Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown. We talked about Eartha and her work over the phone last week.
You’ve done a few books with Fantagraphics now. What’s it like putting a book together with them?
The editing process is pretty free. Gary [Groth] really wants the artist to have their own visions, so he'll just ask me if something isn't clear. Sometimes I would want to take out some narration, and he would encourage me maybe to leave it in. He’d just do certain things for clarity. For the most part, he's hands-off. Which is just amazing.
Did you have conversations about the look of the book? It's just a gorgeous book, in terms of production value.
Oh god, Keeli McCarthy's design is so beautiful on this book. Her cover graphic is like a walking labyrinth for the eyes. You could get lost in that world. All of her choices — for the endpapers, everything — it's just beautiful.
I had a bit of say, but I don't like to impose too much of my opinions because I think that kind of hampers the creative process of the designer. So I had comments now and then but I basically just wanted her to just take off and run with it.
One thing that I think that comics can do better than any other medium, including movies, is convey the dream state. I think they can show dreams in a way that no other medium can. This is a very sort of dreamy book to me. I was wondering whether you agree with that or if you disagree.
Well, my general feeling about books is that they're the ultimate interactive medium. When you are reading a book, you're bringing your own unconscious to it, so there's a little alchemy going on there between what you're reading and what you're thinking. Movies will never be able to do that for you because they're controlling the pacing and the editing, but when you read a book, you're in charge of the pacing.
So, yeah, I think for conveying dream-like states and surreal states, I agree. There's nothing like a book. Maybe the next best thing is painting, and some kinds of music, but books — they just do something to the brain that video games and movies just can't come close to, in my opinion.
Sometimes things have to be on-the-nose.
The part in Eartha about news being printed on biscuits and people publicly wailing over the news in a performative state really stuck with me. I'm probably bringing some of my own anxiety to this but, boy, it felt like social media to me. And it very uncomfortable but very appreciated. I don't imagine you probably want to talk too much about the meaning of your work or anything —
No, I think I was pretty insistent on that one. I was doing that on purpose. I'm really worried about addictive technologies and social media. I'm really concerned about what it's doing to people's brains and their outlooks. I don't care if people think I'm being obvious. That's okay. Sometimes the metaphor doesn't have to be very clothed.
Every time I do a book, it's like a time capsule of whatever is going on. There's this proliferation of addictive technologies, and the people inventing them are even saying that: ‘Yeah, we invent them to be addictive. We want you to be on your phone all the time.’
In your profession, you have to be connected all the time. It's gotta be crazy-making, don't you think?
I certainly feel that way right now, yes.
So you have a more of a hands-off approach to technology, then?
I've lived most of my life before all this but I've been working with Apple computers since the late '80s. I love all that stuff. But then around 10 years or so ago, I guess when the first smartphones came out, I just noticed things started to change.
People's attention spans started to change and then social media came on the scene and it just felt like this runaway train. I really think it's changed people. It's changed their outlooks, their sense of reality, a little too much. Then apart from social media you've got this proliferation of cable outlets and reality shows, so-called reality shows. When everybody's wailing over their biscuits in the book, they're all sort of in their own little reality show where they're the star.
I really felt it. I really appreciated that it felt like I was on Facebook watching somebody melt down over the news in front of me a little bit — that sort of neurotic feeling that I get from watching somebody demonstrate the performative angst that you see out there a lot. Did you worry that it would be too on-the-nose?
No, I didn't. Because sometimes things have to be on-the-nose. I'm not worried about being really, really clever and impressive and intellectually tricky with people. I don't care about that stuff. I care about emotion.
I love that the main character is not a traditionally attractive heroine — that she has a different body shape than many female comics characters. And there are, of course, people who are making comments about her body all the way through the book. Was she always the protagonist, and was she always in this form?
As a protagonist and a hero, I wanted her to be a very socially awkward person who didn't know her own strength. Because who can't relate to that?
I wanted her to be as ordinary as possible. I really like every protagonist in stories I do to be someone very ordinary — someone who is very reluctant about getting involved.
If you ever get around to reading my first book, Percy Gloom, he's very much in that mold. He does not want to get involved. He is really mouthy but he ends up affecting a lot of change just through no conscious action of his own. It's just kind of from being there.
Does that present any challenge for you as a storyteller, having your main characters start out that passive?
Yeah, it's really hard to plot for a protagonist that's kind of passive. It's a real challenge. With [Eartha], she's especially kind and passive. Like, what's gonna wake that giant?
So you’ve really gotta create an antagonist who is doing so much obvious damage to everyone around him that she just, as the main character, can't take it anymore.
Does that maybe relate to how you feel about social media and technologies addictiveness? Are you at a point where you can’t take it anymore?
Well, I don't know. Maybe. I think that everyone has to come to that point within themselves. And that's sort of the whole gist of the book is that you can shut off your misery at any time.
Everyone's addiction is voluntary in this book, even though they've been very much conditioned into it. I guess that's my attitude right now, is that we're inundated with stories from all directions — from TV, from blogs, from social media, we are inundated — and we're exhausted. But I think if you can just land on something that feels real and deep, at least for a little while, it takes you out of that addictive behavior.
Do you ever worry that you're adding to the inundation of culture with your books?
But I'm trying to work in a medium that consciously slows people down and gets them to focus. Because you just can't zip through any of the books I do. You’ve really gotta sit with them. You have to live with them and maybe read them a few times.
I know a lot of people don't want to do that, and that's fine. But for those that are looking for something to sit with and spend time with, then it can temporarily take them out of that.
The art is just gorgeous in this book, and it the sort of thing you want to spend time on every page because you put so much work into it, it's just very obvious.
Well, I'm trying to get people to slow down. That's part of the reason I did the artwork that way. I'm being so manipulative.
Is it moreso in this book that you're trying to get people to slow down, you think, or is that just your style?
Yeah, it is. Yeah, it's all of a piece.
I mean, the whole book is about people who are so fragmented to the point where they can't even dream anymore.
I know, from personal experimentation that if you have a day where you're on social media a lot or you have to be on the internet a lot, at the end of the day you are fragmented. It's really hard, for me at least, to concentrate or to even know what I think about anything because I've been taking in so many other stories. It's hard to know what my opinions are. It's hard to hear that still, small voice.
Can you tell me a little bit about what sort of techniques you used in the art to make people slow down?
Well, I'm trying to create environments and people that feel real to me.
You know, I can't spell it out for you, A-B-C. I'm not a trained artist. I'm more of a self-taught artist, so I go very much by instinct. And there's a stage — at right about the time when I'm writing and outlining and doing all that stuff — where I'm really envisioning the places and figuring out how the cities work and the countryside works and what the culture is and how the people treat each other.
I keep drawing until something feels real to me. And I don't even know what that mechanism is, but there's something that clicks, finally, and that's when it feels real to me. So I couldn't say, ‘oh, it's the composition,’or whatever. It's more like, ‘okay, I know I'm there now, I feel I'm there. Now the drawing's done.’
The same with characters, too. It just was really kind of a challenge to try and figure out how these personalities looked. Especially with Eartha. I drew so many versions of Eartha before I landed on the one that's in the book because she had to be powerful but very, very naïve and innocent-looking. She had to look very goodhearted and just open.
Finally, this is more of a personal note but I loved the character of Old Lloyd. I was wondering if it was based on a person or if it just came to you or what. I just loved that character.
Old Lloyd is my id. He's the character I relate to most when I get really disgusted about what's going on. He was very easy to write. Thank you for liking him, because he's my favorite character.
Yeah. He is. He's crafty and he's grumpy as hell but real deep down, he's really kind. He's just worried.
I'm glad you liked him.
This Saturday, every comic book store in the greater Seattle Area will celebrate Free Comic Book Day, an industry-specific holiday. FCBD is exactly what it sounds like: stores give away free comics — traditionally samplers of new and upcoming series that publishers would like to promote to new readers — to anyone who visits.
For many years, the Wallingford shop Comics Dungeon has put on Seattle’s greatest Free Comic Book Day show, with guest creator appearances, signings, and cosplayers dressed like superheroes or pop culture characters. One year, an entire team of Storm Troopers from Star Wars stood outside the store and waved people inside. Traffic in front of the store on NE 45th slowed down due to excessive rubbernecking.
Earlier this year, Comics Dungeon owner Scott Tomlin made a big announcement: he was taking his store nonprofit. Tomlin announced that he was founding a new comics-centric education program called Comics for Community, Compassion and Culture — C4C3 for short. We talked with Tomlin about his new roles as president of C4C3 and executive officer at Comics Dungeon, what C4C3 is all about, and what to expect for Free Comic Book Day this year.
Could you talk about the nonprofit, which I understand is fairly new?
Yeah it is. We actually launched the nonprofit in March at Emerald City Comic Con — we technically had applied a couple weeks before, but we launched then.
Our whole mission is about getting comic books into schools, libraries and classrooms. Over the years, we've done programs with schools and teachers and librarians, but we’ve been seeing this really big interest in the comics lately. One, because of the pop culture aspect — it's become more mainstream nowadays.
The medium of comics changes people's approach to education and reading, and we've found that the schools and libraries are actually surprisingly underfunded in some of these arenas. I just found out at least one of the middle schools in Edmonds, for example, has a zero dollar budget for their school library. We're finding that to be a little more common than not, unfortunately. When they do get money, they tend to focus on the staples and don't want to necessarily expand.
So that's what we're trying to do. Just last week, we opened up our grant period — our first one of the organization — where we're offering to librarians and teachers the opportunity to apply for grants of up to $300 to get comic books into the school library.
And what is the relationship between Comics Dungeon and Comics for Community, Compassion, and Culture?
The Comics Dungeon has actually been around for 26 years in Seattle. I owned it for 11 years. We just converted that organization into the nonprofit.
One kind of parallel, if it helps, is to think of us as the gift store at a museum. The museum's a nonprofit organization; they happen to have a retail arm. But all the profits we make out of this store go to funding our cause, and obviously paying salary of the staff. The store's our primary fundraising source but it's not our only one. We take donations and all of that as well.
Do you have any programs together yet? What does your outreach look like?
Our programs are going to be demand-driven initially. We have one in store; we're doing a kids art program. Basically, it's a drawing club. Kids who like to draw come together and hang out with other kids who like to draw. We have book clubs in the store as well, and we're going to be reaching to the schools and see what we can do about coming in and helping them out.
One of the things we're doing in this grant process is asking these educators what are they interested in having: Is it in-class presentations? Is it professional development presentations?
Has anything surprised you so far, in terms of the need and what people are interested in?
Yeah. When we launched at Emerald City, we were a little tentative. We weren't sure how people were going to react, basically, but we got an overwhelmingly positive reception. We met a lot of educators at the convention that were just doing backflips on the whole concept. People were asking, "can I volunteer for you tomorrow?" Things like that. That was really exciting.
What we found, too, is that we haven't yet found a teacher that wasn't interested. Whether you're a science teacher, a history teacher, an English teacher, or an art teacher, there's value for you in comic books. (We're still struggling with the math teachers, but we want to get there too.)
It's just really surprising how positive the reception has been and how generous people have been. We've received probably 10 longboxes as donations in our first month and a half, as well as a few hundred dollars’ worth of cash donations as well. It's been rewarding to see the value of what we're doing catching on so quickly.
That leads into my next question, which is what can people do to help?
Obviously, donations. It’s a great way to donate comic collections. A lot of comic collections aren't worth what people want them to be, and this allows them to have a better tax situation potentially at the end of the year.
And we obviously love cash donations, but the easiest thing to do is, if you buy comic books, just come shop here because it benefits our organization automatically. We're also going to be starting some volunteer programs to help us around the store.
We’re at http://www.C4C3.org, and our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. if you have any ideas or any interests we can be reached there and happy to discuss and figure something out.
With Free Comic Book Day, you guys have always had the biggest show in town. Do you have any plans for this year?
Yeah. This year, almost all day we’ll have at least one creator on hand. These are local creators that are producing well-known books. Obviously, we'll have the free comic books, and a sale to go along with that.
We always have our “Day After Free Comic Book Day Sale” as well. That focuses on back issues, and back issues are one of our best ways to raise money for the nonprofit, because that's typically where we have our best margins.
We might have some cosplayers this year, but we'll see. They're like herding cats, sometimes.
Last week, Thomas Frank was in town to read at Town Hall Seattle from his new-in-paperback book Listen, Liberal. If you're looking to understand what went wrong with the Democratic Party over the last few years, this is the book for you: Frank explains that Democratic leaders have over time shifted the Democrats from a working-class party to a league of meritocratic professional elites. While Frank was in Seattle, he agreed to meet for a podcast interview for my day job at Civic Ventures. The full interview will be released on Thursday of this week as the first episode of the second season of our new podcast, The Other Washington. (You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or, as they say, wherever you get your podcasts.) But for now, here's a sample of our conversation.
I very much enjoyed Listen Liberal. I wish I'd read it sooner. A lot of the book is given over the argument that the Democratic Party is in thrall of elitists who've risen through the secondary education system. You argue that the Democratic Party has become a meritocracy that rewards cautious thinking and conventional wisdom. One thing about the book that I kept waiting for you to do — and one thing that the book always felt like it was on the precipice of doing — was going after secondary education in this country. Because all these elitist people have to come from a system, right? It just repeatedly walks up to the idea of talking about systemic educational reform and then backs off. I was wondering if that’s something you’re working on next?
I already did. There’s no reason why you would know this, but I wrote a series of essays for The Baffler magazine and Harper's magazine about universities, college admissions, all the various scandals in universities, and also about adjuncts.
Back in the 80s and 90s, I went to graduate school in American history. I got a PhD. I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to be a historian. What I discovered as soon as I got my PhD is that the path to being a tenured professor in the American university system had basically been closed to my generation, and to all the succeeding generations.
Instead, professors and university teachers have been casualized. You get your PhD and go out and you have to work as what's called an adjunct, you make very, very, very — you'd be surprised how little these people get paid to teach college students. The majority of university classes in America are taught by adjuncts. They get paid very, very, very little.
The university system has fascinated me because on the one hand the price tag is now, as we all know, outrageous. It's completely off the handle. University of Chicago, where I get my PhD, is close to $65,000 a year now. They're all like that. All of your top tier universities are like that.
State universities are following along behind as they get defunded by the states. The tuition is incredibly high, and yet the people who teach the courses are basically sub-minimum wage employees. Someone forwarded me an article a while ago; it was talking about various people who work at low-wage occupations and what they might do to help themselves. It was listing the low-wage occupations — like people who work in fast-food, people who are in housekeeping, this kind of thing.
One of the occupations that was listed was university teaching. You have to get a PhD to do that! That takes many, many, many years. You're supposed to be the smartest and the best, and all that crap, right? You've done well on your tests and everything, and you've got straight A’s and you've read every book in the goddamn library. That's your future, and it stinks.
That split — that universities are incredibly expensive and university teachers by and large get paid next to nothing — whoa, that is shocking when you put those two facts together and when you try to understand the American university system. And at the same time, the prestige of [the university system] grows and grows and grows.
I live in Bethesda, Maryland. More than 50 percent of the population has an advanced degree of some kind. Everybody has internalized the hierarchy of educational institutions. This is important to everyday life: where I live, people know that such and such a school is really, really, really good and such and such another school is not quite as good.
A friend of mine, his son, I think his son was ten at the time, said, "Daddy, is Williams above Princeton, or is Princeton above Williams?" Of course, his dad knew what he meant. The kid was trying to figure out the hierarchy of American higher education at age ten. This is common where I live. Where you go to college is this incredibly important thing — it's putting a brand label on you. We all know these stories once you start digging into the American university system — the words “fraud” and “scam” just instantly come to mind. Sorry, that's the way I feel about it.
At the same time, remember, I'm a great believer in this. I got a PhD. What would make me happiest in my life would be to spend all my day sitting in the stupid library and writing another dissertation. I love that way of life.
When news broke last month that Joan Swift had died, the Seattle literary community erupted in outpourings of grief. A shared sensation spread quickly around Facebook that something momentous had passed with her. At 90 years old, Swift was well-loved by many generations of Seattle writers, and she provided a direct link to the history of Northwest literature. She was one of the last living writers to learn directly from Seattle poetry godfather Theodore Roethke, and she shepherded generations of writers out of anonymity and into maturity.
Tess Gallagher (on the left on the photo) met Swift (on the right) in 1963 when both had enrolled in what would be Roethke’s final spring poetry workshop. Roethke developed nicknames for several of his students, and “he called [Swift] ‘Mother’ since she had two children and was a bit older than others” in the class, Gallagher recalls.
Gallagher was 20 years old, and one of the two youngest students in the workshop. “Joan was extremely kind to me and took me under her wing,” Gallagher writes in an email. “We sat near each other in the class and it helped me greatly that she took an interest in my poems and clarified things that were asked of us by Roethke from time to time.” She doesn’t know what she would have done had Swift not “made me welcome in her quiet, bemused but affable way.” Swift and Gallagher have been friends ever since. “I considered her a close friend with whom one could share life details and gossip a bit with and just laugh with in a special way,” she writes.
The Puget Sound region is full of stories like that — tales of how Swift reached out to others, and how that first act of kindness blossomed into a lifelong friendship. Seattle poet Esther Altshul Helfgott first saw Swift read at the Frye around the year 2000, and they became fast friends. Helfgott started the It’s About Time open mic series at Ravenna's Eckstein Senior Center a quarter-century ago as a way for new writers to practice their craft on a public platform. She says “some poets and writers of Joan's caliber wouldn't give us a second look, but Joan read for” the series on multiple occasions; she especially appreciated that Swift “treated me like an equal. That doesn’t happen with well-known people in the literary community. She was just so warm and giving.”
Swift had been a high-profile poet in the Seattle area for so long that her monolithic presence could sometimes overshadow the very fine, delicate work in her poems. “Her use of language is so beautiful and lyrical, and the warmth of her personality is reflected in her language,” Helfgott says.
“She is so entirely present in her encounters within the poem that, reading her poems, you accompany her at a high intensity,” Gallagher says. “Her endings often sink the poem deep into your memory so the poem is carried and not released. She is so exact in her image and language that one immediately trusts her, follows her. Her voice has its truth seemingly embedded within it.”
The honesty of Swift’s voice opened doors for other poets. Shortly after news of Swift’s death broke, Sherman Alexie told me about the impact that her work had on him as a young poet. “Way back when, in college, or just after college, I read a Joan Swift poem about eagles having sex as they plummet toward the earth, how they sometimes forget to uncouple and crash to their deaths,” Alexie says. “And I remember thinking, ‘Wait, it's cool to write a poem about eagles fucking to death? Awesome!’ Joan introduced a new rule of poetry to me. Or broke the old rules. Or both.”
“She writes about difficult subjects that others might shy away from,” Gallagher says, citing the poem “Shin-Ichi’s Tricycle” from Swift’s forthcoming book from Cave Moon press as an example. “That ending makes us wear the death of the little boy in the bombing of Hiroshima and she convicts us of us death in such a deadly no-escape way in her ending. She’s a take-no-prisoners kind of writer.”
Swift wrote candidly about rape, Gallagher says, “long before other women would write about it.” Helfgott says that one of the last poems Swift ever completed, “Sometimes a Lake” is one of her most courageous. The poem addresses the suicide of Swift’s daughter, Laurie, and it “is so gorgeous. When she would talk on the phone about Laurie, there was nothing in her voice or her words speaking to me that were like that poem.” In the poem, Swift captures the moment when she goes through Laurie’s effects, looking for a greater meaning that isn’t there.
These boxes are almost empty—
just air and losses.
But here’s a photo album where you’re smiling
with friends, your borderline disorder group.
Everyone I talked to remarks that Swift was working right up until the end. At 90, by all accounts, she was still as sharp a writer and reader as she’d ever been. Cave Moon Press publisher Doug Johnson was working closely with Swift on a volume of poems titled The Body that Follows Us that will be published next month. On Tuesday, May 16th, Open Books in Wallingford will host a memorial service for Swift that will serve as a launch for the book.
Johnson says that Swift was thoroughly involved with the editing process. Unlike some of the books he’s published, Swift “handed me an extremely well-formatted book,” one that was clean and well-formatted and basically ready for publication immediately. But they passed the manuscript back and forth for months, editing it and talking about fonts and making sure everything was perfect.
“Joan very much wanted to get it extremely right,” Johnson says. “She wanted to carry it through to the best of her ability.”
Grab Back Comics is a site that collects and publishes comics about sexual assault, harassment, advocacy, and consent education. It’s produced, edited, written, and curated by a Seattle cartoonist who uses the pseudonym “Erma Blood.” In person, Blood is thoughtful and eloquent. When the conversation turns to abuse stories, she’s always quick to turn the focus to survivors — what they need, what they feel, how to help. In less than an hour, the immense reserves of compassion and consideration she’s poured into the topic becomes apparent.
As the Trump-inspired name suggests, the idea for Grab Back Comics “came to me after the election,” Blood says. To celebrate her first wedding anniversary, “I went away on a trip with my wife and it was very sweet. But my experience of the coverage of sexual assaults and harassment during the election had really taken a toll.” She couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that a man who had openly bragged about his history as an abuser was about to become the most powerful human in the world. “It felt like it really shut me down. I just didn't feel like I was engaging in the way that I wanted to,” Blood says.
She knew from her own experiences that she wasn’t alone: “a lot of people are really suffering. And I wasn't sure what I could do, but I felt as though I needed to do something.” As corny as it sounds, the idea of Grab Back Comics came to her in a dream during that anniversary trip. Once she got back, she started work on building it in Wordpress. “It's pretty close to the way I imagined,” Blood says.
The first order of business was to seek out work that already existed. “I'm trained as a research scientist, and so this work of digging in and finding details and looking for more is familiar ground,” Blood explains. And once she started releasing Grab Back Comics into the world, “some comics friends of mine asked if they could contribute.” It’s been growing nonstop ever since.
Blood sees the site as a continuation of a Northwest tradition, born from “my own roots in riot grrrl and in punk rock and making independent fanzines when I was a teenager.” She learned as a young artist in the 1990s to “crystallize” her “anger and discomfort into something creative.” Her voice on the site is absolutely in that spirit of empathy and rage: — “very direct, very feminist, very no-nonsense, and at the same time, very supportive of people who are having a hard time, who are suffering from our current political climate.”
Just a handful of months in, the site is already a tremendous resource, collecting everything from Namibian comics that provide resources for survivors to “bro to bro” guides explaining consent to a 1984 Marvel Comic that discusses Spider-Man’s history as a survivor of sexual abuse. Blood also reviews books on the topic and interviews cartoonists. As you’d expect from someone who works in research, the site is fastidiously tagged so users can find first-person accounts, work relating specifically to date rape drugs or incest, and comics produced for public health campaigns.
The need for a site like Grab Back Comics is obvious. Just in terms of the amount of preexisting work it catalogues, it’s clear that artists have been working on this wavelength for decades. Why does Blood think that comics are such a useful medium for this kind of work? “With comics we can integrate more than one type of voice and perspective — a graphic voice, a written voice. We can integrate scenery and backgrounds and set moods that, I think, can be more richly rendered than in written narratives when they're done really well.”
Blood has been surprised by some of her findings. “I learned that there is a pretty impressive movement in India around sexual assault and child sexual abuse, particularly, by relatives,” she says. “Of all of the international comics I found, there seems to be a lot of energy in India around those topics. It's something that I'd like to learn more about.” She’s also happy to find that the work has become more inclusive: “conversations around all of these topics of consent and sexual assault and child abuse have expanded to include all genders” in the decades that they’ve been around, she says. When comics about assault first appeared, they tended to “focus very heavily on women, and particularly on middle-class white women, and that's really changed over time.”
Blood is looking for submissions to an upcoming print Grab Back Comics anthology. Between now and May 21st, cartoonists should submit their work relating to the whole array of experiences, from consent to abuse to recovery, to grab.back.comics[at]gmail.com. Blood will assemble those submissions into a minicomic which she’ll then distribute at the Comics and Medicine Conference, which is happening in Seattle this June, and at the Short Run Comix & Art Festival in November.
If you have a question about the anthology, you should get in touch with Blood. She’s also interested in connecting writers with artists, too. “Artists have told me they don't have a story to tell, and other people I know have told me they don't want to draw their own story. So I'm starting to try to link up artists with people who have stories,” she says.
For Blood, this journey has been inspiring. When I ask what themes she’s encountered in all the work she’s collected, she doesn’t hesitate. “I consistently am finding with all of these stories that there's so much bravery and honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable in order to create connection.” Grab Back Comics honors that spirit, and expands the connection to a whole new audience of readers.
Colleen Louise Barry publishes weird and wonderful books under the name Mount Analogue. It’s not just the name of her press so much as a pseudonym; the names “Mount Analogue” and “Colleen Louise Barry” are basically synonymous, the way “Nine Inch Nails” and “Trent Reznor” can be swapped out interchangeably.
Her books have a small print run and, externally, a minimalistic aesthetic. (Barry cites low-impact press Publication Studio as an inspiration for Mount Analogue’s look.) But open those covers and you’re likely to see something you’ve never seen before. Mount Analogue has published political pamphlets and weirdo poetry and hand-crafted erasures and books that are entirely made out of screen captures from episodes of The Bachelor with the closed-captioning left on. For the rest of this week, we’re going to review one Mount Analogue title per day, in order to give you a sense of the scope of her output.
In person, Barry exudes positivity: she smiles a lot, she wears clothing fashioned from bright and interesting fabrics, and she demonstrates enthusiasm for everything from comics to physics to booksellers to television shows. She’s curious and confident and full of energy and all those other qualities you want to see in a relatively new publisher.
So when we meet at Ada’s Technical Books one afternoon, I decide to open with the hardest question in the arsenal: Why, in the year 2017, would anyone want to be a publisher?
“When I graduated from college in 2010, I moved straight to New York and started working in publishing at Random House,” Barry explains. “We would have these grand meetings every week with all the publishers of each imprint,” she says, “and I happened to work for the mass-market trade paperback imprint: George Martin and Danielle Steele and all these people. We had this money-focused idea about books.”
Barry says every meeting hinged on defending books from some invisible attacker, with questions like: "How are we going to strategize, how are we going to survive ebooks? How are we going to survive Amazon?" Everyone focused on “the nostalgic value of books and the idea of the physicality of books,” but at the same time they were publishing books that were “produced so cheaply and so quickly and so cookie-cutter.” The stuff she was doing at her day job didn’t reflect her own “really personal relationship with books and with reading.” Barry recalls thinking to herself again and again at those meetings: "Well, y'all aren't the future of books."
“These small publishers and these communities that gather around the ideas in books and the way that books populate their lives physically as objects — that's the future,” she says. The future of books is “smaller” and more personal. “So I left Random House and went to grad school at UMass Amherst and did my MFA in poetry. My parents freaked out about that,” she admits.
Barry abruptly cut one future short and embraced another “partly because I wanted to not just be constantly worried about what was dying, but to really be a part of what I felt was the pulse and what was alive — which was communities, thoughtful production, thoughtful cross-genre, ways that books become other things, can become worlds.”
All of which is a great answer, of course, but it doesn’t get to the nut of the question: why publishing? Why not just writing? “I like having conversations about things — not necessarily conversations like sitting across from a table with someone and talking.” To her, publication is a process of conversation. She points to one of Mount Analogue’s books, Ted Powers’ Manners. “If, for example, Ted has this collection of poems and this collection of collages, I want to put them together and then I want to risograph them and publish them that way, because when you put them all together like that, that makes something totally new.”
The act of publishing, Barry says, does deal in “other peoples’ art, and it is so important and meaningful to me to give a platform to that. But also I feel that it's my art, too. It's really collaboration, I think.”
So far, Mount Analogue has been built on small local grants from organizations like the Office of Arts and Culture. Barry says when she publishes a title, they start with “about 200 books a print run, with the idea that we will do second runs in the future,” although she does leave open the option of completely changing the books between print runs, in an effort to make the mass production of books “meaningful, rather than just reprinting things.”
Mount Analogue is home to a number of projects including a quarterly series called Conversations with Women, which Barry describes as “basically an excuse for me to make art with a lot of really incredible people who identify as female in my life and beyond.” The first conversation is a “wild hybrid of fiction, tarot, comics, and field guides to birds. We put them all together in this deck of cards” into a “re-arrange-able short story.” The next conversation will be titled Fumetti for the Mothership. (Fumetti is an Italian word for comics made from photos instead of drawing.)
Barry doesn’t retain any snobbish distinctions between poetry or comics. To her, it’s all art. “I love comics, I draw comics, I think comics are maybe my window into our books and how I first encountered art in a serial book form, which is pretty important for me.” That’s one way that the city has “inspired” her work as a publisher: “there are so many great publishers and artists of comics in Seattle that it was really exciting when I first got here.”
But that raises another question: why did Barry move to Seattle after graduating from UMass? Why not, say, Brooklyn? Her answer for that is pretty straightforward: “money was a big factor.” But isn’t Seattle expensive, too? Why not Portland or Olympia? Barry says “the community here is really vibrant and a huge reason why what I do is even possible at all.”
When she was publishing her first books, she immediately found a number of people who were eager to work with her to bring her exact vision to life. She published with Saigon Printing on Beacon Hill and Phil’s Custom Bindery in Georgetown, and both were eager to work with her schedule and establish payment plans. The Factory offered to host her launch party for free. “Every single part of [the publication process] is so beautiful and unique,” Barry says. “I don't know if it would be possible in other cities to do something like that.”
This summer, Barry is collaborating with curator Molly Mac on a show called “Listen” at Georgetown gallery Equinox. “The show is audio work, essentially — audio and film and lots of ideas about listening, essentially, and what it means to listen.” She’s working on a companion book for the show, which she describes as “a strange art object.” And then in the fall, she’s publishing a book titled Clean Rooms, Low Rates, which is a collaboration featuring stories about hotel rooms written by a novelist named Jeff Parker and a photos of hotel rooms by a British photographer named Brendan Barry.
In the long run, Barry dreams of opening up a space for Mount Analogue somewhere in the city, something as freeform and inventive as the books she publishes. She describes a space to buy zines and small-press books, a performance space, a gallery, and an area for people to just come and talk about art, “a place where everything can coincide and collide into each other.” That’s about as good a definition for the Mount Analogue experience as any.
Last week was awfully long for Zine Archive and Publishing Project (ZAPP) managing director Graham Isaac and ZAPP volunteer operations coordinator Emily Cabaniss. On Monday night, the Seattle Review of Books published the news that Hugo House was donating ZAPP’s extensive collection — tens of thousands of zines collected over almost two decades at their headquarters in the Hugo House — to Seattle Public Library. On Tuesday, ZAPP published a statement saying that “we did not give up the archive, it was taken from us.” On Wednesday, I talked with Hugo House executive director Tree Swenson and SPL spokesperson Andra Addison about the move. By the time they met with me on Thursday afternoon, Isaac and Cabaniss looked pretty tired (“I’m exhausted,” Isaac wrote on Facebook earlier in the week.) But as they huddled over their coffees, Cabaniss and Isaac perked up when they talked about making zines. They’re clearly true believers in the DIY literature community, with a bottomless enthusiasm for self-expression. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How did you come to be involved with ZAPP?
Graham Isaac: I got involved with ZAPP in 2009 as a volunteer, and then I was communications intern from 2010 through 2011. I stepped away for a few years, just volunteering at occasional events. Then I started getting back involved as a volunteer in 2013, when ZAPP left Hugo House. I was mainly doing things like press releases and whatnot, and then I stepped in as managing director in early 2015.
Emily Cabaniss: I came to ZAPP in December of 2014. First I was doing social media stuff. I have experience doing social media exhibits, so I did Tumblr exhibits for ZAPP.
That kind of morphed into being an extra set of hands for ZAPP. Then in early 2015, when Graham became the managing director, I took on a more active role doing ZAPP's budgets, representing ZAPP to our sponsor Shunpike, and planning meetings, strategies, delegation — a lot of stuff like that.
The way we present literature by default can be really disempowering to readers. It can make them feel like they’re just consumers.
When ZAPP first untethered from Hugo House and it was floating in limbo, what was your vision for it?
GI: At that point I was largely involved as an extra set of hands, but I think for everyone I talked to, and for everyone who has been involved, the dream vision has always been an independent space where ZAPP could run programming, have the entire archive accessible, and grow the archive. The goal since untethering has always been to find a space where ZAPP could be ZAPP, so to speak.
EC: One of ZAPP's main values is radical accessibility. When we talk about the archive we also want to talk about the publishing component, and I think we intended the collection to be not really a special collection whose main priority was preservation, but instead to be this springboard for continued creativity. Be a way to preserve the voices of people who had made zines, but also show people that anyone's voice anyone can make a zine.
It boiled down to “read a zine, make a zine.” The idea was that you could make a zine and put it right in ZAPP. You could shelve it yourself.
This is a super-elementary question, but I actually don't think I've addressed this in my coverage so far, and it's really important for people who are just now hearing about ZAPP: Why are zines still relevant for you in 2017?
GI: There's a lot of reasons. I think for one, just the physical act of making something can be very powerful. Even if you [create] it on a computer but staple it yourself, you have a connection to the work that's really awesome.
I also think that as we're seeing more and more top-down arts organizations suffer and as we're seeing more and more surveillance of the internet and whatnot, the idea of something that is wholly independent is valuable. It doesn't have to go through various processes. This is important. But other things are important too, but this is important.
EC: When I think about zines, I think about the way that we're introduced to the literary tradition in school — the way we are given these books and are told, "these are the great books; you must read them." But there is not really that connection of “how did someone get to write great books? How did someone get their voice?" How does that happen?
The way we present literature by default can be really disempowering to readers. It can make them feel like they're just consumers. Zines to me are a way to short-circuit that process. To give people the power to make and create whatever they want. To make them feel like what they make has value, and to let their voices be heard and read and seen, unfettered by a publishing process.
GI: It's also just really satisfying.
EC: It's fun, yeah.
GI: Once you've made it and it's done and you look at it, it just feels great. Not to necessarily sound all, like, “woohoo!” about it, but just spreading that feeling and making it accessible and low-barrier has been very important.
You've issued your statement. It seems as though the collection is in the hands of, or is about to be in the hands of, Seattle Public Library. I mean, it's physically in their hands, but the custody rights may not officially be there. But it's almost there. It's very confusing.
GI: At this point, all the communication that we've received from Tree and the library indicated that any sort of final signatures were a mere formality. So, we have to operate with the assumption that it is going to the library and that it is a done deal.
It's a really tough time for you and I'm sorry about what happened. You've put a lot of work into this over the years. I want to know if there's anything you wanted to say to the community and the donors who've supported you over the years?
GI: Well, I think first off, just: thank you for that support, and for being there for us, and letting us do our best to be there for you. Also, we wanted to let people know that the way that this transpired was not the way we would have chosen. We recognize that many people who donated zines, time, and energy over the years have done so with the goal of a fully independent and sustainable ZAPP. And that's why we wanted to make sure people knew the details of the transaction.
EC: Yeah, we'd say thank you for your love, and it's been a really great experience to read all the memories that people have of ZAPP on social media — their Facebook comments and their articles. It makes me feel like this is not the end.
I would say to them: zines don't die. ZAPP closes, but you don't stop making zines, you don't stop being this person. So many people have said that ZAPP, and their experience of ZAPP, was this thing that made them the person that they are. I want to say to everyone who had an experience like that: go out and be the person that you are because of ZAPP. That's ZAPP's legacy.
GI: There are so many communities and projects that grew out of ZAPP over the years, and I think those will carry on regardless. I think that larger community is still going to be there, and I think that's excellent.
So, it sounds like we're on the “what's next” portion of the conversation. First I wanted to ask, what do you see your connection to this community being going forward? And then, what in would you, personally, like to do next?
GI: If I can bring back to ZAPP first, for a second: I think the one thing I want to say is I am glad at least, that we can pay it forward a little bit to things, places like Hollow Earth Radio, Short Run Festival, and IPRC. Those are examples of the communities I was talking about.
For myself, I'm going to work on some of my own art now, and try and engage with the community just as a member, as a listener, as a reader, as an artist. I'm not really trying to start any new nonprofits for a little while, you know?
EC: All of this work has been hugely educational for me personally. I'm grateful for that, because I'm a different person — hopefully a better person — now because of it.
I think kind of the same thing. I don't really want to start any nonprofits. I do want to put what I learned at ZAPP to work for other organizations. But I don't know. I think I need a break.
I really didn't have any connection with the community before I started with ZAPP. I'm a librarian, that's my job. And that was the route that I came to zines: someone I knew said, "You're a librarian, you want to talk about zines?"
Now, I know more people in the community, and I want to do more listening and I want to do more learning. We made something, and I want to keep making stuff. And I want to be an advocate for zines to people that I know.
GI: I definitely put some of my own writing and artistic projects on hold during this. I want to get back to some of that. You know, go make a zine.
One day, Jamaica Baldwin’s name just started popping up everywhere in Seattle literary circles. Two years ago, I had never seen her name before. Then from out of the blue in January of 2016 came this tweet from Kwame Dawes:
Remember this name: JAMAICA BALDWIN. A poet of power will cross your path soon.— Kwame Dawes (@kwamedawes) January 8, 2016
And then Baldwin was everywhere at once. She was part of the exclusive Margin Shift poetry collective’s reading series and the 2016 Lit Crawl and seemingly everywhere else in the Seattle literary scene. Adding to the drama of her out-of-nowhere debut was the mystery surrounding her name; as a poet, Baldwin was un-Google-able. You couldn’t find her poetry anywhere online.
That’s finally changed. Last month, Rattle published Baldwin’s stunning poem “Call Me By My Name” in both print and audio. And now she’s our March Poet in Residence, with a new poem published on the site every Tuesday. We’ve published two of her poems thus far, “Father/Less” and “Vigilant.” Together, the two poems reflect much of Baldwin’s interest: she writes passionately about race and politics, with an engaged voice and a tendency toward formalist structure.
Those lucky few who’ve seen her read might be surprised to learn that Baldwin, 40, describes herself as “a relatively new writer.” She started writing in 2009, and began taking writing seriously after she moved to moved New York City in 2011 and took a workshop at the Center for Fiction. She mostly wrote plays and fiction. But then “I got diagnosed with breast cancer,” she says, “and then, you know, something turned. I found myself reading a lot of poetry, and then I started writing poetry, and that was just kind of it.”
Baldwin has lived in Seattle off and on since she was “about 19.” At the time of her diagnosis, she was living in New York City, but she moved back west to be close to her family as she finished treatment. Sitting in a Fremont coffee shop on a gray March day, she seems healthy and strong, prone to infectious gales of laughter.
Though Baldwin has only been writing poetry for a few years, she’s been exposed to poetry her whole life. She wasn't a big reader of poetry as a child, but "my mom was a writer and so there was always a lot of poetry around the house,” she explains. “I would pick up a book here and there — some Nikki Giovanni laying around the house, or Mary Oliver. That kind of thing.”
“After cancer, I just thought about things in a different way,” Baldwin says. “And I think poetry helped me. The writing of poetry, the form of poetry attracted me and spoke to me.” Her reading became more varied and purposeful, focusing on poets of the African diaspora. Baldwin went to school with Laurie Ann Guerrero, last year’s poet laureate of Texas, and so she had a personal introduction to contemporary poetry. She found new meaning in the work of Ross Gay and Terrance Hayes. Locally, she praises the work of Maged Zaher and Quenton Baker, and she’s eager to learn from Elizabeth Austen’s “pitch perfect” presentation style as a 2017 Jack Straw Writer.
“I knew I was behind,” Baldwin says of her poetry education. “There was just so much out there to learn.” The thing about poetry, though, is that if you want to learn more, poets will show you the way. “I would read interviews by the poets that I was discovering, and then they would mention books or poets that they love. And then I would go and find those poets, so it was sort of this domino effect of just trying to read as much as I could.”
Having recently graduated from Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing Program with a focus on poetry, Baldwin worried that “without the deadlines, I would hit a dry spell and not be able to write. But it was almost the opposite.” She finds “there are plenty of things to write about every day. I mean, I get triggered by things that I read, or things that are going on in the world. And then I also get triggered by just reading other peoples’ poetry.” She describes stopping in the middle of reading a poem and writing a response to it right then and there. Poetry, for Baldwin, is a conversation — and that conversation is just getting started.
I first met Stephanie Han in Los Angeles in 1998 when we were chosen as fellows in a new literary mentorship program, PEN’s Emerging Voices. Looking back, we were both arrogant in the way of young untested writers, but at least Stephanie could back up her attitude. She was well-read and discerning about literature. During one workshop, she explained the Shakespearean allusions in the manuscript up for review; allusions that everyone else had missed.
We kept in touch when the program ended. During these years we learned the long game of a writer’s life. We trudged through periods of literary success and rejection while balancing responsibilities like caring for elder parents, working uninteresting jobs, having partners and raising kids. Stephanie lived abroad and in several U.S. cities during this time, and her first published story collection, Swimming in Hong Kong, examines the struggles of characters who are expatriates and immigrants. According to Han, the difference between the two categories hinges on one’s identity and national definitions. “The US doesn’t have expatriates in our social understanding of culture--we have immigrants,” she says. “You are expected to come here and assimilate and not hold your other national or cultural identity, but rather, add to the American identity.”
After finishing her collection, I found myself thinking more critically about identity, dislocation and movement. More specifically, her stories prompted me to consider the particular ways that Asian women are both visible and invisible.
These stories take place in Hong Kong and in cities across the U.S. Where did you grow up?
I am a 4th generation Korean American. Asia has been a part of my life geographically and personally, it is where my family is from. I know parts of it quite well, and as an adult, lived in both Korea and Hong Kong. Asia gave me a sense of belonging and purpose that I could not find in many places in the United States. But I was not raised in Asia.
I’m a product of the United States, and very specifically, claim a cultural heritage rooted in the Asian colonial settlers of Hawaii. The way that I think, what I believe, my perspective (in probably both positive and negative ways) is rooted in American culture, particularly through the lens of Hawaii, given my family’s history here.
But I was born in St. Louis Missouri. We moved every year until I was eight, at which point we moved from the Presidio base in San Francisco to a place on the outskirts of Iowa City. You know, the only Asian story. Apparently when I first went back to Hawaii as a three-year-old I started screaming and pointing at people and telling my mom “Look at all the Orientals!” I was excited. Kids notice difference. I used to ask my mom, where do I say I am from? And she would tell me to name the places I lived and people could choose one. And I’d tell my mom, I didn’t have any friends. And she would say, read a book. If you read books, you’ll always have friends. Writers are rather asocial beasts who have fits of being social. I would have fantasies when I was younger about fitting in, and at times, I did more than others, but in order to write, you do need to occupy a position as an outsider. That’s normal for any artist or thinker. When you’re younger, it can be hard. I kept journals.
My family moved down to Memphis, and I’ve also lived in Massachusetts, New York, Arizona, and California—the latter is where I really found myself as a writer. Hawaii was always where we returned to, back and forth for various family events and holidays. These days I feel like it took me a lifetime to get back home to Hawaii. Except for the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen or lived in nearly every major region in the United States. I lived in Korea as a child on the US military base, and later as an expatriate, and in Hong Kong for quite a few years.
Movement and displacement define me, and while it used to be a source of anxiety or discomfort, I realize now that this is what I am familiar with and I’m finally comfortable with this position of being a permanent geographic outsider, home everywhere and nowhere.
What’s been your path as a writer?
I was one of those decent writers as a kid, but my confidence got a little knocked out of me when I went to boarding school. There were students who were way ahead of me in terms of analytical thinking and writing skills. As a teacher I know that the adolescent brain is peculiar and develops at a different pace dependent on the individual. At the time, I didn’t know it. I felt intimidated. I thought I was fairly good at English, but I wasn’t any sort of English class star. But my academic performance never killed my desire to read and write.
I also had parents who could afford a variety of bourgeois creative activity and instruction. I took music lessons, studied all manner of things, and in high school took tons of art classes with results being very mediocre at best. Still, I loved all kinds of art. I was tested and told I had perfect pitch, but I hated to practice music—I had studied piano, cello, guitar and violin. In fact, the only thing that I was free to do on my own, without any expectation of practicing and performing was to read. I could read as much as I want, whatever I wanted, and I didn’t have any recitals or expectations surrounding it. In other words, exposure to all sorts of arts helped me, but left to my own devices all I wanted to do was read and write, so in the end, that is probably why I became what I did.
After high school, I went to Barnard College/Columbia University for a few years, moved to Los Angeles trying to pursue screenwriting, and ended up finishing my degree at UC Santa Barbara, right after I got a grant to write my poetry chapbook. I then headed to Korea for a year before returning to California. That’s when we met at the PEN fellowship, this was the best due to its diversity and the fact that it drew in all kinds of people and writers. My partner and I went to San Francisco State for our Masters. I married someone who was a longtime UK expatriate and this determined a lot of my geographic journey as he was based in Asia. I did VONA with Junot Diaz who encouraged me to get the MFA, but I delayed a year, joining Stephen in Hong Kong. After a few years in Arizona, it was back to LA, and then after our child was born, we went back to HK.
I was thinking of quitting writing. I was really discouraged; hundreds of rejections do that. But I began to teach again, and students have a way of inspiring you. And I realized it wasn’t something I just could quit as it was tied to who I was and how I navigated and how I expressed myself. It defines my relationship to the world. There are a lot of different reasons for rejection, but partially it was that writers write of the present, but this is often a future that the vast majority of people cannot see or understand. This happens even if writers are writing of the past. The reason is how a writer sees, the lens through which they examine a subject or person or emotion, if slightly unfamiliar, is often easily rejected.
I’m not saying all published work is derivative, but there is a bit of a time element, and it’s easier if there is a set precedent. The story Swimming in Hong Kong, I couldn’t get published for the life of me. Asian Americans rejected it and quite rightfully, it wouldn’t have been published at an African American journal given my background. The end result was that everyone rejected it. It’s a story about an old Chinese man and a highly educated professional African American (specifically Jamaican American) woman’s friendship set in Hong Kong, features no sex, and was written by a Korean American. You can imagine how editors looked at this. What? It was finally published in a Hong Kong literary anthology a decade after it was written. In that locale people could understand it. But in the US, most could not imagine this type of scenario. Globalization has shifted how we see things, as has the Internet, so my stories are now of the present, despite most of them being written well over a decade ago.
In HK I got an offer to do the PhD, a full ride. This kind of opportunity would have never happened to me in the US, so I encourage people to look overseas when thinking of where they might head as writers. Being mobile gave me opportunities. I became the first student there, and they hired one professor and I was paid to read and write—not a lot, but something. This period of life helped to consolidate and theorize my ideas about writing and literature. I’m very grateful for this experience.
I don’t believe degrees are necessary to become a writer, but it was my path. Showing up to write, going into that hole by yourself can be a hard thing to do. Why am I writing this at 3AM? Does anyone really care? Believe me, if I could think of something else to do, I probably would have done it by now. I sometimes fantasize about finding some other sort of métier or passion, but I keep circling back to writing, so there you have it.
In several stories, bars serve as settings that are masculine and hostile. There’s that great scene in “Nantucket Laundry, 1985” where Lydia, who’s Asian American, is insulted by white male patrons and the bar bouncer, a black man, defends her. What’s striking is the way you subtly dramatize the racial and gender dynamics of that alcohol-fueled moment. The bouncer is a big man who “lumber[s] over” to the harassers, but he talks to them almost deferentially “in quiet syllables.” Can you talk more about bars as a fictional setting?
Wow. That is funny. I never thought about how many stories are placed in bars! Hmmm. Clearly bars have had more of a presence in my writing life than I thought! With Bill, the bar bouncer in Nantucket Laundry, I was trying to convey more of a physical presence than any sense of deference, but obviously Bill is aware of his surroundings in the all-white bar, and in my mind he was darker skinned, and bald, which would also play into perception of his physicality. Some men who are of large physical stature have rather low or soft voices—they don’t have to say much because of their size. Conversely when people are rather short, they can often be loud, something I tried to convey with Lydia’s confrontation when she swears at the men. Bars have a lot of potential for drama due to alcohol. There are more layers of obfuscation and people can hide behind alcohol, or are more emboldened to behave in ways that they would not in their regular lives.
I also would say that drinking culture and bars, particularly overseas or in places where people do not have to drive can really set the stage for some bizarre encounters. I think that in the US, outside of a very few urban areas, you are mostly driving from place to place, and while that doesn’t necessarily stop consumption of alcohol, it serves to stop a certain level of consumption. (I’m talking about outside of university campuses, mind you.) “Invisible” and “Hong Kong Rebound” are set in HK—which has a formidable nightlife and drinking culture. Also in some rather reticent or reserved kinds of cultures, bars are where people do loosen up. Americans idealize the extrovert, and many strive to be this type of personality. But it’s not the case with all people and cultures, and so bars offer an opportunity for alcohol inspired encounters that are sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes boring, but mostly just not the same as those without alcohol.
I sound like I’m advocating for bars or alcohol or something, but really, it’s just an observation. As for them being a masculine terrain, I think that this is often true. There are some, but a woman running a bar would create a very different environment.
The shortest stories in the collection, the short-shorts, are poetic. I’m thinking of what you’re able to coax from the scene in “Hong Kong Rebound” where a bar waitress tapes black paper over the windows. Can you talk about the connection between poetry and prose for you? Which genre do you prefer?
I turn to poetry when I have no words. This sounds strange, but it is what I go to in order to exercise a different part of my brain. It becomes a release. I’m drawn to narrative—it informs all of my work, poetry and prose, but I turn to poetry when I’m trying to sort through feelings. Prose is what I write when I want to solve, think about, or wrestle with a problem—it’s a bit further on down the line than poetry for me, at least. I feel a particular narrative in a more obvious way, and so this propels a prose piece. I read more prose than poetry. Poetry doesn’t require narrative, but most of the poetry I prefer has some sort of arc, a narrative feel, if only an emotional loyalty to story. I think poetry does also inform my prose, but this is when I get down to the sentence level. So I like both and use both. I think it’s good to move between different genres as one can inform the other.
Tell me about the earlier drafts of “The Ki Difference.” Was it always driven by dialog? What made you go in that direction?
I enjoy writing dialog. It’s fun. I started out years ago trying to write screenplays and I studied acting, so I enjoy dialog. Because of the character Dan and the idea of Los Angeles/Hollywood, dialog worked on a few different levels. I was thinking about the characters and their history and naturally the form of dialog followed this, as if this idea of the qualities of a particular type of genre, the screenplay, followed the characters and yielded this dialog heavy story. It’s interesting how form can be determined by characters.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
Help! This is a terrible question for me, as I read inconsistently and this list changes. I’ll pull out a book in the library and turn around to tie my shoe and then see another one and pull that one out. I should be more methodical about my reading, but am not terribly organized in this way. Anyway, I like Timothy Mo, a Chinese British writer. He is not read much in the US, but he should be. I’ll tell you what I am reading now: Finished up the Amitav Ghosh Ibis trilogy Flood of Fire, an amazing feat of historical research and plotting, Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees, Winning Arguments by Stanley Fish, and Poetry magazine…There’s Jannette Winterson and Anis Shivani sitting there on my desk. Haven’t cracked the books open, but intend to. I’m reading about natural world stuff for my next project. I just picked up How to Read Water by Tristan Gooley. I had a terrible science background, so this is not easy reading for me, but for my next thing I want to think about myth, environmental crisis, and place.
Have you read the short story, “The Point,” by Charles D’Ambrosio? I’d like to teach your story, “Nantucket Laundry, 1985” and “The Point” together. I’m intrigued by how suicide hovers above the main narrative in both. Also, both stories are set in coastal towns and deal, in different ways, with the burdens of whiteness and WASP culture.
Oh no! I haven’t, but will!
Your characters express that they feel invisible in a variety of social contexts. Lydia feels invisible in overwhelmingly white Nantucket and an unnamed Korean American protagonist feels invisible sitting among Chinese inside a Hong Kong bar. Another character, Hana, says of the U.S., “I’ll always be a stranger here.” How do you view the loneliness that so many of these characters feel? Is it all attributable to race or is some of it an existential angst particular to our times?
I think loneliness or existential angst have to do with the nature of current global and domestic society due to modern life. Asian Americans are always perceived as outsiders to the American narrative. This is down to immigration history, language, and the disparate narratives of Asian Americans. In order for a group to coalesce within the US, there is a larger narrative that all acknowledge on some rock bottom level. With Native Americans there is the issue of land, of course, and genocide; with African Americans, the legacy of slavery; Latinos/as, Spanish language, and often Christian faith. Asian Americans have no singular binding narrative, religion, political belief or immigration history. We become Asian American here, meaning, we reach out across the tribal lines here in the US in a way that would have been impossible in Asia due to war and colonialism (ie Japan/Korea). There is a deep level of mistrust that comes from the US involvement in Asia in terms of war: WWII, Korea, Japan, the Mideast--the US spent a great part of the 20th century, and 21st century so far, battling in these areas of the world against and with people of Asian origin, and often with debatable outcomes.
I also think that some of this is down to Americans and how the Dream furthers both the idea of the individual and isolation. The American Dream is both wonderful and rather intense in how it stresses individual agency, personal will and ideology. This will to dream, to reinvention, to be whatever or whoever the person wants to be, this is really powerful. The flip side to this is that to cling to an individual dream can be terribly lonely. Everyone needs a sense of belonging. But belonging in the US is fraught with difficulties because how we belong varies so dramatically, how we construct ourselves becomes so personalized and determinedly unique, and the US presents the possibility of remaking the terms of the contract of belonging to such an extent that it can often paralyze people. We’re supposed to go out there on our own, be, and dream and fling ourselves forward to self-actualize in a way that yields material gain to prove our success. It can be a hard thing to do.
I’m not advocating conformity or being less adventurous or cautious in life, I’m just saying that doing your own thing, so to speak, can also be a lonely and hard journey. Not everyone feels brave all the time. It’s often nice if we have someone else, or a group, we can be lonely with together, we need a friend to be brave with, if that makes any sense. At the very least, it is comforting to read about people who feel the same way—deeply concerned, worried, distressed, or at odds with the demands of modern life.
You teach Asian diasporic literature. Have you thought about how your own writing fits within this literature?
Technically speaking, I’m a member of the Asian diasporic literature category (as would all Asian writers be who write in English), but I ultimately claim an American identity and consider myself to be an American writer. My work is rooted in a very American idea of narration/authorship and has an American sensibility and outlook—down to the fact that some of the stories are set in HK, yet I am not Chinese, but a 4th generation Korean American. I see that I was attempting to reckon with a perspective here as one who was inside and outside of the broad American narrative. Asian diasporic literature is another way of rearranging and re-categorizing literature. If you do this, you re-center the narrative of how a group writes and it becomes interesting to reconsider. But this is literary theory categorization is more of interest to those who are critics, as opposed to the writers themselves. I suppose as a trained writer or reader, this is of interest to me, too.
The category of Asian diasporic literature in English is a way of mitigating the hegemony of literature in English or American literature and moving the origins to Asia. The US is a new but powerful country and to center myself as part of the Asian diaspora then, gives more power or credence to Asia as my influence, as important to who and what I am.
But I am not concerned anymore about being perceived as American or Asian in writing and so leave this aspect of my own writing to others. I don’t have serious allegiance to any particular Asian national project, while I respect and see the merits and problems of all in various ways. I have no Asian language competency that matches my level of English, and don’t feel caught between the worlds, so to speak of Asia and the US. I embrace a pan-Asian American identity, one without the baggage that comes from ancestral animosities in Asia, but a shared sense of community based on our struggles in the United States, our negotiation with all kinds of people and cultures, and yes, our community’s negotiation with our historic and personal ties to Asia. The conflict of this situation is often more clearly marked in the writing and perspectives of 1st and 2nd generation Americans. It comes up in my writing too, but not always.
If someone wants to claim me as Korean, great! I claim both sides of my parents as Korean, 100%! I’m Korean! Yes, I am part of the Asian diasporic literature group and the American literature group. Probably due to being an expatriate for so long, I’m not as hung up one way or another. My mom vows in every situation that she’s an American. She’s still in that mid-20th century mindset of the promise of statehood for Hawaii. Now that’s under fire. But anyway, if I’m in a country and the person cannot understand my immigration history I’ll say I’m Korean to get to my destination. But not my mom. She’d never say it. I can go with whatever works. I consider my identity quite flexible. Such stuff is all down to personal experience, I meandered here…but I think these are the joys and complication of diaspora and diasporic literature.
Since June of 2012, Nathan Vass has been blogging about his experiences as a driver for King County Metro. On his blog, The View from Nathan’s Bus, he writes candidly about what he sees as a driver on the 7 line through Rainier Valley, which is commonly stereotyped as the city’s most infamous route.
Operating a bus gives you a front row seat to the very best and worst of humanity. Vass witnesses surprising generosity and bitter conflicts on his daily trips, and he records it all. In five years on his blog, he’s published posts about race and gender roles and the changing face of Seattle and art and feces and pretty much everything else you’ll find on public transportation.
I had arranged to meet Vass for the first time at a coffee shop downtown for an interview. At first, I walked right past him. I failed to immediately recognize Vass for two reasons: first, he looks too young to drive a bus (he turns 31 this month, but he is a very youthful 30;) and second, he was staring so intently at the paintings coffee shop employees were in the process of hanging that I assumed he was the artist. (Vass is a photographer and filmmaker in his spare time, currently working on his ninth feature.) In person, Vass is well-read and deeply thoughtful; he keeps a journal by his side and takes notes whenever an idea occurs to him.
The name of his blog — particularly the “View” in “The View from Nathan’s Bus” — is no accident; there’s a reason why it’s not “Stories from Nathan’s Bus,” or “Overheard on Nathan’s Bus.” Vass really looks at things —he notices fine details and takes in context and nuance. While many people wander the city in a daze, Vass doesn’t miss a thing. In the middle of an answer, he stops and points out one of his regular riders, who just happens to be passing by across the street. He knows his name and what his days are like.
When Vass started driving for Metro in 2007, he says he was “resistant to the idea” of writing about his job because “I felt that we live in a time where documenting life is given priority over experiencing life, and I didn't want to fall into that.” More than that, “these moments on the bus are quite special, but they're also private and precious — and perhaps I would be interfering with their preciousness by writing about them.” He notes that memorists often find their memories to be “shifted and be reframed by what they've written” after converting their lives to “narrative form.”
Ultimately, Vass says, his friends convinced him to share his stories with the world. He also thought that perhaps he could be a counter to the horrible news people encounter every day, that he could make his blog a space “for people who want to read about all the great things that are happening in this life, especially the subtle, everyday, beautiful things that I think a lot of us notice but don't talk about.”
Vass had actually been writing about his route for years. During his breaks, he would write down noteworthy moments on the backs of bus transfers. He still remembers the first note, which was about “the look on this boy's face as he took off the bicycle from the front” of the bus — a look of “excitement and respect” and “vitality.”
But when he started blogging, Vass realized it takes a lot more work to write a blog post than it does to scribble a note on a bus transfer. Vass says that on almost every post he writes, “the last paragraph or the last sentence — you can read that and know that I spent 45 minutes staring at the computer screen, figuring out how to write that.” Vass often carries a printout draft of an upcoming post on him, and during breaks on his route he’ll edit the piece with pen on paper. (He’s an analog guy who shoots on film and prefers to listen to music on vinyl.)
The blog will continue for the forseeable future. If anything, Vass has too many experiences to share. He’s got plenty of notes written out on transfers “that seem like they'll make pretty good blog posts, but then they get tossed by the wayside because other things happen that are more interesting. And there's always more things.”
But isn’t blogging supposed to be dead as a platform for writing? Vass scoffs at the idea. When he’s writing a post, they’ll often “run longer than I think they will, and I discover they're actually about more than one thing. And I love that the blog allows for that space.” He resists the brevity of Twitter and Facebook: “people are complex and we can't address that complexity using only the most simplest and reductive of communicative forms. I think that's why books still persist, because we need that.”
Vass admits when he started out he was “apprehensive” about his bosses and coworkers reading his blog. And they definitely do read it: “there's a person in the HR department at Metro who's required to read everything I write,” he says. But that HR staffer “shared with me that she's grown to look forward” to new posts, and that they give “the administrative staff at Metro an armchair perspective of what it's like to be on the street.” Some of Vass’s posts are used as training materials for new bus drivers, and he’s been asked to speak to new classes. He believes that the administration likes that his blog “underlines the fact that this is a customer service gig. We're not driving around potatoes here.”
Ask Vass for his influences and you’ll get an impressive list in response: Tolstoy, Van Gogh’s letters. But so far as literary influence goes, “the first name that flashes to mind is Don DeLillo.” Vass loves DeLillo’s obsession with and respect for the rhythm of the language: “the English language is large enough that you can [substitute] any word for another word for the sake of rhythm. And he's very meticulous about that. That's something that I try in my own very small way to emulate.”
Over time, his blog has developed deeper rhythms and a novelistic understanding of time. Characters recur and Vass grows to know his riders more and watch kids on his route grow up. It’s a complex story of life in the city, and that book-like feeling is no accident. Vass confesses that “it’s always been a dream of mine to get a publishing house interested” in a book version of the blog, and he’s saved some potential posts specifically for that eventual book.
But in the end, writing the blog is its own reward. Vass wants more than anything “to inspire a sense of hope and belief in other people, not just to make them feel better, but to make them think that, ‘Okay, the world is a good place. Humans are good people.’” Does Vass really believe in the goodness of the human race? “I actually don't think it matters if that's true or not, but I think it does matter if people think it is. Because if they think the world's a good place, if they think people are great, then they'll be inspired to work hard at making that become closer to reality.”
In the end, Vass says, as a bus driver and a photographer and a filmmaker and a writer, “I want to remind folks that you can contribute.”
JT Stewart is our February Poet in Residence. We've run three sets of poems by her: "Invocation", "FOLKS: 'Many Rivers to Cross'", and "SISTAHS — How We Got Ovah". Check back tomorrow for the last set in this series.
You may not know JT Stewart's name, but if you're involved in the literary arts in Seattle, you've come across her influence. She's woven into this city, threads in the plaits of literary culture, as a poet, writer, playwright, editor, teacher, performance artist and more. She's taught students at the University of Washington, Fairhaven College at WWU, and Seattle Central Community College (including yours truly), where she was the executive editor of the annual student-run literary journal Ark — a journal run on blind submissions back before such was fashionable. She's been a curator of the Jack Straw Writers Program, a board member at Hedgebrook (where there is a distinguished writer's scholarship in her name), a judge for the Governor's award and King County's Poetry on Busses, and is one of the founders of the Clarion West Science Fiction Writer's Workshop.
Stewart is a striking woman, tall and elegant, with a thoughtful, sometimes whimsical, approach to students and teaching, and a probing approach to art. Identity seems to be one of her biggest themes: her identity as a black woman with strong African influence is foundational for much of her art. I asked about her use of identity: "perhaps the best working description is 'border crossing poetry', so thank you to Rose Lemberg for helping me plus teaching me to truly understand my work." She also said that poetry has given her the kind of flexibility she needed for the "tangled complex issues of being or becoming any of the following: a woman writer, an African-American writer, a black writer, a feminist writer, a multicultural writer."
She learned her craft from musicians and artists, and considers her work performative: "I consider myself 'a voice artist'," as she puts it.
Stewart is perhaps best known as a poet and prose writer. "I use poetry (primarily non-linear) to free myself from the shapes of prose w/ its sentences, its Aristotle based logic / its punctuation rules, its grammars. With this freedom I can create / explore imagined worlds." Prose she sees as a more formal way of expressing herself, through academic papers, discussions, and letters, recalling a satisfying response to delivering a paper on Huck Finn at the Georgetown Law School.
She was a regular book reviewer for the Seattle Times during the 1980s, where she was tasked with covering books by black writers. Of the many she wrote, she says her 1987 review of Toni Morrison's Beloved stands tall in her memory.
She grew up in New York, attending the High School of the Performing Arts (when it was called the High School of Music & Art). As an undergraduate at the historically black Fisk University, Stewart studied with United States Poet Laureate (at the time he served, the role was called "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress") Robert Hayden. He "introduced me to a galaxy of black history and writers" says Stewart. Graduate school took her to Wellesley, and then Fordham University in the Bronx, where she studied under her mentor Professor Charles Bernardin "who introduced me to visionary poets like William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and playwrights like the obscure (but once popular) Reverend William Mason."
"From this rigorous scholarship. I've learned to love history - also writers who use history in their work - e.g. August Wilson and Octavia Butler. (See my poems from week one 'Invocation,' and week three 'Sunday Morning'.)
"A lot of my poetry is based on historical research. Thus I can say my poems have kissing kin relationships with history (some times real — some times imagined). And these poems usually take years to compose."
Once in Seattle, Stewart was an attendee at the 1973 Clarion West Workshop, the acclaimed intensive six-week Science Fiction and Fantasy program founded by Vonda N. McIntyre, based on the Clarion Workshop. That year, she studied with Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin, among others, in what ended up being the last year of that iteration of the workshop.
Stewart and Marilyn J Holt were running the Science Fiction Fair in the late seventies and early eighties. Since she was teaching at Seattle Central Community College at that time, she saw the opportunity, and approached the VP of instruction and convinced him that restarting Clarion West at the school would be a smart move. Stewart, Holt, and McIntyre rebooted the workshop in 1984, setting it up as a non-profit, and it's been running continuously ever since.
About her work as a playwright, Stewart says: "I've also spent considerable time working as a playwright here in Seattle with three theaters that have shut their doors: the Alice B Theater / the Empty Space Theater / the New City Theater. My teachers included my Director Susan Finque and the Artistic Directors: Ricky Rankin, Kurt Beattie, John Kazanjian. Also I studied with two influential women of color playwrights: Cuban-American Maria Irene Fornas and African-American Pulitizer Prize Winner Susan Lori-Parks."
What's next? "I've published two short stories and have had folks tell me they are parts of a novel. Perhaps that's waiting in the wings. And - yes - I now know how it will end."
We'd like to thank Stewart for working with us, and bringing her work to our readers. We will note that we normally refuse to defer payment to poets, but at her request, we donated Stewart's payment to Hugo House, where she has taught, in her name.
Michelle Peñaloza has lived in Seattle for almost exactly four years. In that time, the poet and essayist — she’s the author of the chapbooks landscape/heartbreak and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes — has become a ubiquitous Seattle literary figure, both on stage and in audiences at literary events throughout the calendar year. Peñaloza's announcement that she will be leaving town at the end of February sent a shock through the community. She’s more than just a sharp observer and a deft and graceful poet — though she is that, too. She’s become an integral part of the literary community’s support system. It’s hard to imagine the city without her.
Peñaloza made time to talk over the phone in the middle of a very busy transitional week in her life. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Thank you for making this time for our readers. I really appreciate it; I know it's a very busy time for you. I guess, first of all, I am wondering if you'd be willing to talk about where you're going and why.
I won't get too specific, but basically I'm moving for love, so that my partner and I can be together full-time in California. That's reason, I think, to leave.
So say somebody in California asks you what the literary culture in Seattle is like, and what your experience has been. What do you think you'd say to them?
It's a very vibrant scene. I would say that I was very sad to leave it and that I've loved my time in Seattle. I've met so many incredible people, and I feel like I've been lucky to have such a great amount of support. Not that I don't work hard or anything, but I feel like I've been very supported as a writer in Seattle. I feel like I've had a lot of opportunities with Jack Straw and the Made at Hugo House Fellowship, and teaching at Hugo House. I was a visiting writer at Seattle U. I would say that my personal experience has been a very good one.
So you would recommend to Seattle to another writer who's asking your opinion about whether she should move here?
Yeah, it's the best city that I've ever lived in as a writer. Granted, part of that is where I am in my writing life, too. I finished grad school maybe two years before I moved here, so I was in a different spot than I'd ever been in my writing life. I think those just dovetailed in a very fortunate way for me in Seattle.
Also, I feel like it's big enough that there's lots of stuff going on. In fact, sometimes too much stuff going on. I feel like there's some months in Seattle that are just insane — like, October is always crazy because people have been coming down from summer. There's just reading upon reading upon readings.
I would say, I guess, if you're looking not to be too busy, I don't know if Seattle's the place for you.
Is there anything that you think that Seattle could do to be more supportive for writers?
One of the things I noticed when I first moved here, and then I sort of became part of that same pattern that I had noticed, is that a lot of Seattle readings series ask the same people to read. You'll see someone who's reading everywhere all the time for like a year. I feel like maybe spreading it around more, doing a better job of thinking like, "Oh, I just saw that person read. Maybe I should save them for later."
I feel like I've been that person before, where people were like, "There she is again! Geez, she's everywhere." I don't want to sound ungrateful, but I also think that a way to be more supportive of writers in general in Seattle is to not always have the same people read.
One other thing I would say is to organizers who run reading series or do anthologies or any sort of curation of writers is: try hard to make sure that if there are five readers in an event, don’t choose four white people and one brown person. Make sure that there’s always more than one person of color reading at an event.
You have so much geography in your work. Place is essential to your writing and I'm wondering if you thought about how moving from Seattle will affect your work or if you think Seattle is going to be represented in your work in the near future.
Every place I've lived has sort of made a mark, but I think Seattle will always be a part of my writing, whether or not it is obvious. Because I feel like Seattle's the first place, personally and professionally, that I ever felt fully myself. I know that sounds sort of lofty, but when I first moved to Seattle, I had just come out of pretty traumatic personal — for lack of a better word — shit that I was dealing with. I was escaping a lot of things.
Seattle was a city that, personally and professionally, welcomed me with open arms. I know that that's not necessarily a typical experience — people talk about the Seattle freeze, and they talk about how the literary scene can be hard to break into, but Seattle has been so special to me in that way.
Then, also, I met such incredible people here. It’s just a really close community of writers that I admire and that motivate and impress me.
Do you plan on coming back and reading anytime soon?
I don't know about readings, but I will be back this summer because I'm going to be teaching a Scribes class at Hugo House with Imani Sims, which I'm really excited about, but I don't have any readings or anything lined up.
Was there anything that you've been thinking about in these last few weeks as a Seattleite?
I guess what I would say is that I'm going to really miss Seattle. I think that's apparent from what I've been saying. But I also am excited to begin a new chapter of my life with my person in a different place where we can be together all the time.
Seattle has been a real home for me. I will be really sad to leave it but I've built solid relationships with people and with this city that I feel like I could come back and be welcome again. I guess I just want to say thank you.
Paul Auster reading at @town_hall_seattle tonight. Part of the q&a dealt with Auster's work with @pen_america: he offered the thought that, in authoritarian regimes, the "act of novel-writing enforces democracy". Astonishing that that insight now applies in the United States. #paulauster #townhallseattle #bookreading #author #books #novel #reading #makeamericareadagain #dumptrump #glisteningocherousamoeba @faberbooks @henryholtbooks
Last Thursday, I interviewed Paul Auster at Town Hall Seattle. Interviewing Paul Auster is intimidating as hell; he's one of the most widely translated American novelists of all time, he's produced a magnificent array of influential novels since the mid-1980s, and he's a world-class thinker on the topic of stories and storytelling. We discussed topics ranging from his stellar new novel 4321 to the secret of writing convincing sex scenes to a harrowing high school basketball game. The event was recorded by KUOW and will appear on Town Hall's site in its entirety, but for now we thought we'd share this timely exchange with our readers.
What you think a writer's role is in the age of Trump?
Far be it from me to tell anybody what to do. I mean, artists are artists. And I think making art, even in the age of Trump, is firmly — he doesn't own everything, you know? He taken over a lot, but he doesn't own it all. And there's value in novels, there's value in music, there's value in painting. Think of a world without novels, or string quartets, or ballets, or plays, or movies. It's unimaginable, really.
My theory is this: that the novel, just by its very nature, is an act that enforces democracy. Because the novel always is about an individual or a set of individuals. And by entering the inner lives of often the most ordinary kinds of people, we're giving them the full dignity of their humanity. I think reading novels is a way to participate in the inner lives of others. People who are not us. And that in itself is a political act.
Ok. Still. Artists are citizens as well. And then it's up to everybody to decide what he or she wants to do outside of the realm of the books that they write. I, myself, have spoken out at times. But I would never urge anyone else to do that unless that person really wanted to.
Now, I've thought long and hard about this new world that we've entered three weeks ago and I feel my life has to change. I can't go on in the way I've been going. But this is my own private thing. So there's an organization I've been involved in for years called PEN — I'm sure most of you know what PEN is. It's really the only human rights organization defending writers around the world.
And at various times I've been vice president of American PEN, secretary, and on the board. And I've been asked to be president a couple of times — to run — but I haven't wanted to because it's a very time-consuming job, and I wanted to do my work. Well, now the position will open up again in about a year — early 2018. And I'm going to throw my hat in the ring, and if they want me, I'll do it and I'll use it as a platform for speaking out. Because it is a great organization, especially the Freedom to Write program, which is defending writers. PEN just got an Egyptian writer out of prison, just a month ago. So I think we can be effective.
As the former head of that program, Larry Siems, said to me once, "our job is to make noise, as much noise as possible. And sometimes people hear us." Beautiful way to think, yeah?
Even if the word “remainder” doesn’t mean anything to you, you likely have spent time browsing remaindered books. You can find remainders in most large bookstores—they’re the new-looking books that sell for used-book prices, often stacked on tables near the front door. They’re basically the second-run movie theaters of the publishing world—outdated overstock sold for dirt-cheap to distributors a year or more after the title first went on sale.
Remainders — also called bargain books — are big business for bookstores. Because they’re so cheap (often a quarter of cover price, sometimes even lower) customers buy them by the armload, often in conjunction with a new book or two. And behind the scenes, it’s a competitive world; the books are in limited supply, available in large lots at random times. Many large bookstores have buyers specifically devoted to the buying and maintenance of their remainder section.
Mark Mouser has worked at University Book Store since 1980, and he’s worked as a bookseller — with stints in Moscow, Idaho and Factoria and Bellingham — since 1975. Though he’s served in many roles at UBS, including trade book manager, he’s spent many years buying and managing the remainder section. University Book Store has been selling remainders for almost ninety years. “It’s kind of in our DNA,” Mouser says. Under his guidance, University Book Store has developed one of the largest and fastest-moving independent bookstore remainder sections in the country, rivaling giants like Powell’s and New York City’s Strand.
That’s why they give the remainders a place of pride. When you walk the store, the first section you see is Mouser’s domain: seas of tables full of high-quality books (literary fiction, art books, current events) at prices that seem too good to be true. No trip to UBS is complete without two passes through their bargain tables — one long browsing expedition in the beginning and then a quicker recon survey at the end, to make sure you didn’t miss anything.
I talked with Mouser last Thursday, the day before his retirement from UBS. He admitted to “feeling weird” about being at the end of his lifelong bookselling career. “I love what I do there and I love the store and so it’s going to be different,” he said, but “it’s time and I’ve got a lot of things I’ve got to get done and want to do.” His days ahead are filled with Spanish classes and gardening and road trips and reading. He also admits that, given current events, “I’ll probably spend more time being politically active than I imagined I would in retirement.”
What does Mouser think customers like about remainders? “They work as a surprise element,” he said. “There’s an unexpected nature to the bargain tables. You never know what’s going to be on them.” That’s what attracted him to the business. “I know that over the years a lot of our customers have built incredible libraries out of the bargain books they’ve bought off of those tables. I think that’s cool.”
Mouser ordered remainders for University Book Store by scouring websites for remainder wholesalers, placing orders seven days a week. Some of the sites update their stock at a regular time every day, while others update sporadically. Bookstores are fiercely competitive in ordering from those sites, with the most desirable books disappearing almost as soon as they’re posted. He also made twice-early trips out to remainder warehouses to personally dig up forgotten surprises.
While thousands of customers appreciate the fruits Mouser’s hard work, he understood exactly what I meant when I described him as the boogeyman of authors. Many authors perceive the remainder table as a symbol of their failure, a reminder that every last copy of their books did not sell to adoring customers.
Some author egos are pretty fragile. “There’ve been times when we’ve hidden certain remainders when we have a certain author’s event,” Mouser said. He told me that authors have confronted him, asking why their publisher would allow their books to be put out on the bargain tables. “I always like to remind them that they are in extremely good company,” Mouser said. “If you shop the store you know that every author — living, dead, male, female — they pretty much all end up on that table.”
But not every writer is so fragile. Mouser recalled an incident when author Robert Michael Pyle came into the store and saw his book about logging in southwest Washington, Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land on the bargain tables.
“I was called down to the floor because the author said he wanted to talk to the remainder buyer. I came down thinking, ‘uh-oh.’” But instead, Pyle greeted Mouser with a big smile. “Bob wanted to thank me for giving his book a second life.”
It’s easy to tell that Mouser was moved by Pyle’s kindness. “I think that was the most wonderful way to look at it,” he said. “Those books could’ve sat in a warehouse for years. They could’ve been pulped. They weren’t on anyone’s radar. But here they were in the front of the store, right in people’s faces. That’s how authors should look at it.”
Nobody writes about the Northwest like Jon Raymond. From his gorgeous short stories— Livability is one of the finest books about the region to be published in the last two decades —to screenplays for films like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy to novels like Rain Dragon, he’s perfected the art of writing about the lush vividness of Northwest nature, the peculiar mannerisms of Northwest people, and the sprawling wet-concrete grace of Northwestern cities.
Raymond’s latest novel, Freebird, is a departure on many levels. It’s set not in Portland or the surrounding wilderness but in sunny Los Angeles. While many of his stories are deeply personal and interior, Freebird is an overtly political book, by which I mean it’s interested in the social constructs that make society work. It’s his funniest, broadest book.
But it is still, at heart, a Raymond book, propelled by his gorgeous sentences and thoughtfully structured. Raymond’s work feels like a conversation with the reader: rather than blowing you away with raw showmanship, he invites you to slowly recognize the beauty of what’s going on around you.
Freebird is about a family in flux: a grandfather who survived the Holocaust, a mother considering an ethically shady business deal, a bored teenager who gets robbed, a soldier trying to reacclimate with American society. Readers will find pieces of themselves in all of them.
Raymond reads at University Book Store tonight at 7 pm. I talked with him on the phone about Freebird, about California, and about the many horrible readings he’s had in Seattle.
I started reading this book a couple weeks ago and then I had to set it aside because a deadline got in the way. I couldn't wait to pick it back up again. This never happens with novels, but in between my putting the book down and picking it back up and getting back into it, it somehow felt like it became even more politically relevant in that couple of weeks.
Novels almost never feel more relevant with the passage of time. It’s really quite remarkable. Does it feel that way to you?
Yeah. I’d say definitely. I can't say I'm pleased that its topical relevance has become more pointed since the writing happened. I wrote it mostly in 2014 and 2015. It definitely preceded the rise of Trump, Trumpism and all our current troubles.
But it was always conceived as a political book, and a book about specifically American politics. The characters were very grounded in some of my ideas about American political polarities.
I always knew that the family was in a sense a representative of an American family. I knew that they were creatures of politics and they thought about politics. I assumed it would just have a more general relevance, you know? Now, some of the rage that is carried in that book feels pretty widely shared in this moment.
Has its unexpected relevance changed the way that you read from the book, or the way that you feel about the book?
I don't think it's changed the way I feel about it. I haven't done too many readings from it yet. I did read from it on Inauguration Day and I read an assassination chapter, which I had been looking forward to doing for a long time. In a way it was almost overly on point. It didn't offer too much relief from the reality that we all share and that we go to fiction to find. It didn't create much of an alternative worldview.
But I'm excited about the book. I like reading from it. It hasn't altered too much for me.
There’s certainly more satire in here. You use the word “fun” to talk about the book and it feels like you're enjoying reading from it a little more. Especially the parts involving a deal for the rights to control graywater.
Some of the books in the past have definitely flirted with the morose, and I think with the film stuff too. For whatever reason, certain comic parts of my personality haven't really been exercised that much. For this book, I really wanted it to have a different and more fun, more vibrant feel. I wanted it to oscillate more wildly. I wanted it to bounce more.
It was a fun writing experience, I have to say. There was laughter and there were tears. For me, it was a good experience. Whether or not it's fun for other people I can’t say.
I think it absolutely comes across. You write so beautifully about the Northwest and Portland is in this book, but only as a distant place. I was wondering, with the setting of Los Angeles, if you were working outside your comfort zone, maybe in sort of the same way you were talking about with the fun and the humor?
Yeah. Absolutely. I feel like I've been pretty reverent about writing about the region for a long time. I guess, between the books and the movies, I just got to a point where it wasn't that exciting for me to write about Douglas fir trees and ferns anymore. You know?
That might change again, but I did want to expand the theater of operations a little bit. It had become a little claustrophobic to just keep walking the same ground.
For me, California certainly is a continuance of the culture up here. It's distinct, but it is still a west coast civilization. Also, I have family roots in California and so I feel comfortable representing it in some way.
Did you feel like you were being boxed in as a regional writer or was it just a general difficulty with writing the same region?
More like just, I think, a little bit of malaise, a sort of tapping the same thing over and over again. This book was coming more out of some family stories and histories that didn't feel quite as tethered to the place, you know? It could have happened in a variety of locations, so I just took the opportunity to vacation for a while.
I guess not being tethered to a place is a perfect sensibility for a story set in California.
Yeah. Right. The possibilities of that.
You were known for a while for your moments of quiet epiphany, at least in your screenplays and from your short stories. This book has a lot of action to it. I'm wondering if the broader nature of this book works as a response to the screenplays you've written?
I just think of a feature film as closer to a story than a novel. I feel like [films] are traditionally suited for smaller, more human-sized moments and a more quotidian reality. I guess for me a novel is a place where things can become more exaggerated and more, I don't know, out there in some way.
In a way, this novel is structurally pretty similar to my first novel, The Half Life, which also had multiple story lines and traveled to China and had strange time jumps and stuff like that. I think there's something in a novel that needs bigger engines in a certain way, you know? It’s funny because in some ways this book is more typically full of action, it’s more cinematic; but obviously the writing I've done for movies is not like that.
I just wanted to do something more muscular and dynamic this time. I feel like it there was a greater pleasure principle going on for me on some level.
Okay. I feel like I could sit down and ask you about your sentences forever, but I’ll let you go. I hope your reading goes well.
Thank you so much. I really do appreciate the attention. Yeah, I'm looking forward to reading in Seattle. Seattle's been a funny place to read, I'll just admit.
Oh yeah? Really?
Yeah. Probably my worst reading experience was in Seattle so I'm hoping this one changes the dynamic.
Can I ask about that?
Yeah. The first time I read in Seattle it was for my first novel and I read at Elliott Bay. I think I had two people show up, one of whom was a Unabomer-type guy who was getting out of the rain. I didn't even end up doing the reading. We had sat around and talked about writing in a very small group. I remember him telling me that he had been working on the same screenplay for 50 years.
That's five-zero, not 15?
It must be the best screenplay ever written.
Then I came back for Bumbershoot one year and read from a story that ended up becoming the Wendy and Lucy movie. I made the mistake of reading a blog afterwards or something, some guy talking about the reading. He called me an “assclown.” That’ll be in my head for the rest of my life. I’ll always be wondering exactly what an assclown is. I have never fully comprehended what that insult meant, but it stuck with me.
Then the last time I was up there, I read again at Elliott Bay, at the new location, and had two people show up. One of whom was an old high school friend of mine and the other one ended up asking me one of the most offensive questions I've even been asked at a reading.
Again, I didn't read. We just talked. By this time the Wendy and Lucy movie had been made and Meek's Cutoff, also with Michelle Williams, the actress, in it. This guy's main question for me was, "Have you ever fucked Michelle Williams?"
Oh my fucking god. That was so offensive on so many levels.
Oh my god.
I know! I know! Anyway, Seattle has been rude to me, but hopefully this year will a different experience.
Oh my God. And yet you keep coming back. That's incredible. After the third one, I would have said "that's enough of Seattle for me."
Basically, they're spaced apart enough that I kind of forget them and then I come back again.
It’s probably not my place, but I’d like to apologize on behalf of Seattle. I've been at a few readings where the audience has sucked, but never that bad. We're much better than that, usually.
Actually it's become kind of amusing. I'm on a very funny streak.
Elisa Chavez’s poem “Revenge” was published on her Tumblr and then was republished by Seattle author Lesley Hazleton. We read the poem on Hazleton’s blog and got permission from both Chavez and Hazleton to publish it on the Seattle Review of Books, and we made Chavez our very first Poet in Residence for the month of January. Then, the poem went absolutely nuts: this month, many tens of thousands of people have come to the Seattle Review of Books to read and share “Revenge” with their social networks. “Revenge” marks the second poem of Chavez’s to go viral; an earlier poem about Gamergate attracted the attention of dozens of internet trolls. We sat down with Chavez to discuss slam poetry, being a viral poet, and why art is more relevant now than ever.
How long have you been writing poetry?
My mom would have the most accurate count. I think I was 3 or 4 when I started writing. I'm 28 now.
And how long have you been performing your poetry?
I was briefly involved in slam when I was a teenager in Austin, Texas for like two seconds, but then I didn't really do it in a meaningful way until I moved to Seattle in 2013.
In your relatively short career, you've had two poems go viral. The first experience was maybe not so pleasant, and the second one was maybe hopefully a little moreso. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the difference between those two experiences going viral and what it’s been like for you.
For a while my friends would send me links to stuff that they thought would make me angry. They'd be like, "I can't wait to see what you write about this." One of the emails was a link to a Vulture article about Gamergate, which was the thing where a bunch of guys got super-angry at women for having opinions about video games.
There were 900 comments on the article. I read all 900 comments, and then I wrote a poem. The structure of it was based on all of the things I kinda wanted to yell at people in the comments. The way the poem sorta became a thing is, I performed it at WOWPS, which is Women of the World Poetry Slam, in 2015. I didn't have a name for the poem — a lot of times in spoken word you don't have to name anything.
The actual title was the first three lines or something. I just called it "#Gamergate."
It turns out that the Gamergate crowd has Google Alerts set for that term, and they found me. Right about the same time that my friends were like, "Elisa, you're on Button Poetry, that's so nice," I started seeing all these comments coming in.
At first I thought "Oh, this is kinda funny.” It was several dozen, and then it became a hundred, and then three hundred, and it was really terrible. They were just very mean and angry. People don't understand how upsetting it is when somebody breaks the social contract and says horrible things. It was just so many people. They would sort of go back and forth with each other, and play a game of oneupsmanship about who could say the worst things about me. I have not been back to that comments section in almost two years now.
That was that experience. It fortunately mostly remained in the realm of the online, although I did have a show that I was doing in Vancouver, and one of them found the event and posted to let me know that they knew where I would be.
Wow, I'm sorry.
People made all these takedown videos of me, which I haven't watched. Some of them were women. And that was really kinda sad, because they're young girls. I remember when I was in college, there was a time when nothing felt as validating as a guy’s affirmation. That part was a little sad.
With “Revenge,” I think the biggest difference — aside from that people aren't yelling that I'm a resentful whore or whatever — the main difference is I think that people are really engaging with the actual substance of what I wrote. They’re tagging their friends in it. I see people going like, "Oh, so-and-so this reminded me of you," or "So-and-so, I know you would love this.” That has made me very happy.
Somebody messaged me on Tumblr, and they said that they had been really, really depressed ever since the election. All their friends were getting up out of bed because they felt inspired to fight and this person couldn't find it. Then they read this poem, and they felt like that gave them what they needed. I cried when I read that, then I told my mom. That's a huge difference. It's not that people haven't been negative, but you gotta really wake up pretty early in the morning to be as negative as Gamergate.
I know you've written about that, and I remember that's why I liked your essay so much, the way you linked Gamergate to the alt-right Neo-Nazis. Or Neo-Neo-Nazis, whatever.
Yeah! Yeah, and seeing all that stuff again come up in this election is like, "ah, hello darkness, my old friend!"
In a way both poems are kind of about the same thing. Does it bother you that the two poems you've had that have taken off on the internet are both in relationship to shitty men?
No. Well, at this point, no. If you had asked me last year, I might have said yes. I write poems about so many things — like terrible horror movies and velociraptors, and all these things. You know, there's also some stuff about men. The thing I felt like I needed to respond to was, "oh, she hates men."
It was like, "No, I don't like you. I'm fine with men." I talk about my dad, and my brother as positive male relationships in my life. I think there are some poets whose body of work is a lot more like chronicles of terrible men. Which is great! I just don't necessarily have that many actually terrible men in my own life that I feel compelled to write about.
At first when it was the only thing that I was known for, I have to say it did feel bad when people were like, "Hey Gamergate, you wanna come perform at our venue?" I'm like [suspicious voice,] "yeah, thanks?”
Some Gamergaters said, "She's just riding that poetry gravy train by capitalizing on our fame!" I think I made 75 whole dollars off of that poem.
What are you working on now?
Trying to convince myself that I haven't peaked at 28? That's what I'm really working on, and it’s an emotional journey. I'm writing a bunch of Donald Trump/election related stuff right now. I'm giving myself permission to do that and not worry about the repetitiousness of it, because I got to take a really, really great workshop with Mahogany Browne a couple years ago. I remember the one little snippet of conversation I had with her. At that time I was writing a lot of angry feminist stuff and I felt like I couldn't stop being angry, and I was upset that I couldn't stop being angry. She said, "Just write what moves you until you don't have to anymore."
That's been really, really helpful. I gotta believe youth had something to do with this. You feel like, "Oh, I've been doing this for a year, it's forever, this is my life," and then it goes away and something else happens.
So that's what I'm doing, since I kind of have that permission I'm just trying to have fun with it. I wrote a poem about Donald Trump’s tiny fingers, and every line was shorter than the last. It's just fun. My mom told me that she wanted me to write a poem about Kellyanne Conway and dedicate it to her, and I did that. If you just watch any of these people for any amount of time, you just get so angry.
I hate asking this question but when I interview slam poets, I always have to bring up the disassociation between slam poetry and written poetry.
You are a slam poet, but you were eager to have your poetry written. Is there a divergence between slam poets and written poets, or is it changing, or is it not, or what?
I'm gonna speak only for myself, and I want that to be known so all my slam poet friends don't think I'm selling them out or saying bad things about them or whatever. I do feel limitations within myself that are craft-based. Like: line breaks. What are they? Why? That keeps me up at night. I don't have much, sort of, awareness about a lot of this technical language around form.
At the same time, I love a couple things about slam poetry. Since it's a competitive atmosphere, and you don't want to bore people by doing the same thing every single week, it really keeps me writing. Since you want to write something that will appeal to people more than the stuff your friends are writing, it can really help you bring your A game.
There are some pitfalls, which is that sometimes you perform things that a crowd wants to hear. Sometimes things that the crowd wants to hear are not really particularly artistic or a good idea.
When I started competing, my well-meaning friends would try to help me do better in slams. They would be like, "You have to read this one," and I would say, "Oh I don't wanna read that tonight, I feel like doing something different." And they'd say, "Well do you wanna win?" I'd be like, "I do what I want!" And I did, and I didn't win for a year when I first started, 'cause I wouldn't do that.
I think slam is really accessible. One of my friends had a line in a poem, I remember the first time he read it. Oh God, I'm going to misquote it. It was: “The ninety seconds it took to go from one in a million, to one of them, to one of the good ones, is a uniquely American way to feel whiplash.” When he read it, people screamed. I screamed. It's hard to find a place where somebody's words will do that to a room full of people. That's a special quality to me.
Do you differentiate? Do you ever write something and say "This is a prose poem," or, "This is only spoken."
When I do have ideas for line breaks or for arrangement on a page, then I kinda want people to read it instead of hear it. There's some stuff that people tell me they like, and I hate it on a writing level, and I can't imagine that if it were put down on paper anybody would like it.
A lot of times, my metric is, I really really try to write something that will work on the page — as in, the writing is strong enough that it could stand on its own, but also it would be engaging to perform.
Are you interested in publishing a collection? Are you interested in staying on the slam beat, or both? Are you just seeing what happens?
I think both. I just started working on the board of Rain City Slam, it's a volunteer position. I think that what I'm excited about is trying to do more outreach, and get more people involved — at the very least getting involved in self-expression, and dipping your toes in the arts. Partially I'm trying to work up the guts to submit stuff. I'm trying to put more of my stuff out there.
Are there any poets in town who you like a lot who you think deserve more attention?
I would say Jane Wong, except she just put Overpour out, and people love it and it's apparently doing really well, which is great. Johnny Horton, I love. EJ Koh and Michelle Peñaloza have done really cool stuff.
You've been writing since you were tiny. What is it about poetry that does it for you? Why poetry and not prose? What is the calling?
I like prose too. I've written a novel. I wrote some political commentary this past fall, which was super-cool. But I like poetry because I think when it's really really good, you just get the most emotion per word. The best bang for your buck. It feels like a condensed, high-octane literary experience.
That is awesome. That is an awesome answer.
If people want to read more of you, where should they go?
How often are you reading at Rain City?
Most weeks. Most Wednesdays. At least twice a month.
Is there anything else that you were thinking about?
The thing I've been telling everybody to do is, I just want to see so much art about Trump. Trump hates art, he hates comedians. His particular brand of communication is like this id-driven word salad. I think that that means that he can't speak the language of comedy or of art. And so I really really want people to write poems about him, and stories, and shove 'em in his face because I think that it would infuriate him.
That's it, that's my dream for America.
In the days after the election of Donald Trump, poet Erin Belieu called on Facebook for writers and readers to not give in to despair and to “actively help make the world we want to live in.” Her appeal quickly went viral, evolving into a series of nearly 80 coordinated readings around the world on Sunday January 15th. Those readings are the launch of an organization called Writers Resist. I talked with the organizers of Seattle’s Town Hall event, journalist Kristen Millares Young and novelist Sam Ligon, about their work creating the Seattle faction of Writers Resist.
So what, exactly, is Writers Resist?
Kristen Millares Young: Writers Resist is a national movement with international allies to further the cause of a just and compassionate democracy.
Sam Ligon: It's made up of local organizations that are expressing their ideals. And in the case of Seattle Writers Resist, we're interested in celebrating free speech and the American ideals of freedom and equality.
What local organizations are you working with?
KMY: First and foremost, we're working with Town Hall Seattle as a partner and a venue. Our first nonprofit that we're helping to rally support for is the ACLU of Washington.
SL: The reason we think it's important to support the ACLU and free speech is because as writers, that's what we deal in — we deal in speech. And it's our duty and obligation to exercise the right of free speech and to celebrate free speech.
KMY: There are Writers Resist events around Washington state: Bellingham, Ellensburg, Spokane, Olympia, Bainbridge Island, and Port Townsend. And each one of these events has a different social justice issue as a rallying cause. Each city is taking a different approach to their idea of what's needed for democracy to function.
SL: Ellensburg is particularly interested in immigrant rights, for example, so location is determining focus.
Why is free speech the focus in Seattle?
KMY: I think Seattle as a city needs to have a voice in the future of our nation, and it’s important that we exercise and celebrate our right to be known despite our progressive values not being in power at the moment. We as a city have a responsibility to our nation to hold these things up and keep them visible until our elected representatives see fit to celebrate them along with us.
SL: I also think in Seattle we have an incredibly rich and diverse literary community. We've got a wealth of voices in this town to speak and we want to bring those voices into play.
What is the future of Writers Resist?
KMY: I see Writers Resist keeping our community engaged in discussing civic ideas, and turning the conversation towards what we must sustain and preserve and champion. Our values are under attack in a very real way from the highest reaches of government, and as an organization, we're here to bring people together to remind them that we know what it is that makes America great.
SL: And we have an obligation to say something. You know the post-9/11 admonition to say something if you see something? We'd like to encourage writers to do that. We're all going to be seeing things — we all are seeing things — that require our speech, require us to comment upon them.
How do people get involved?
KMY: You can tweet at the national organizers. We are putting together a Facebook group. There are hashtags that people can use. One thing that people are doing is that on Fridays there is a #ReadersResist hashtag where people are finding inspirational quotes that celebrate ideals of democracy and sharing them to act as a pushback against this vitriol and empty condemnations.
We need to come at the world with something to offer, not just condemnation. We need to say, "these are the values that we believe in,” to remind people why that belief is so necessary. I think people are stirred by ideas, and so we want to stir people and to do what they can during this time.
Thanks to these Writers Resist events happening all over the world, there are about two thousand people, two thousand writers, two thousand communicators, two thousand teachers of all kinds who are now in contact with each other who weren't before. What I'm seeing happen is we've opened up communication, so that if someone has a great idea it can rise to notice quickly and be implemented.
It’s about the idea of bringing people together for teach-ins and having open channels of communication. [Those channels] essentially have been closed down as people are keeping themselves to their smaller networks and withdrawing from the horror of every day's news. We're bringing people back to that table and saying “no, there's things we can do here that are positive. It's not just feeling battered by each day. There's something we have to do.”
SL: We want an alternative to despair. Despair is not the answer right now, nor is silence. People say, "what do writers resist?" Each local organization will determine that, but we think writers resist despair. Writers resist silence. We see this as the beginning of a conversation locally, regionally, that we hope to continue. And we hope this evolves into a larger, richer discussion.
KMY: We don't know how people are going to respond to this. One thing we suggested they could do would be to bring these ideals into their book clubs. It doesn't necessarily have to be a Writers Resist-themed thing, but if people in book clubs say "we're going to be reading writings on freedom, writings on equality,” they’ll be encouraging people who are already talking to each other to discuss things that are important to our democracy.
SL: We’re already rallying support to places like the ACLU that's a national organziation. Going forward, we want to support local organizations like Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
KMY: Here in Washington state, we have a state legislator who proposed to categorize peaceful protest as economic terrorism. That's not going to fly, but at the same time, it’s important to say that we condemn that, that this is wrong. There are things we need to do to raise up the values that we want to see. If we don't do it, who will?
SL: We want to make America great again, is what we're saying.
And we're changing things up for Monday, too. For the last year and a half, we ran a Bookstore of the Month feature, in which we talked to booksellers, discussed bookstore histories, and talked about Seattle's strong bookstore culture. Now, every Monday we'll run a new interview. Sometimes they'll be long interviews with authors. Other times we'll check in with Seattle folks to see what they're reading. Once a month, we'll chat with our Poet in Residence. And this week, we looked inside the Seattle Public Library's Seattle Reads program.
This doesn't mean we're giving up on Seattle bookstores. In fact, quite the opposite: we hope to regularly feature booksellers in our interview series. But this opens up the day to more of Seattle's voices, the people who make the literary city work. If you have any ideas for people you'd like to see featured on the site on Mondays, please let us know.
On Wednesday, October 5th, I interviewed Sarah Glidden about her excellent book Rolling Blackouts at the Elliott Bay Book Company. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
PAUL CONSTANT: So you traveled to the Middle East with reporters from the Seattle Globalist in 2010. Over the next few months, they published reported pieces and videos and photo essays. And now six years later, here comes your book about the experience. I was wondering if that lag signifies a drawback of comics reportage to you, or if you think there's something comics journalism can do that other forms can't?
SARAH GLIDDEN: If you're going to do a big book like this, you definitely want to pick a topic that will have a shelf life, that will last longer. When we went out to do this book, I wasn't thinking, "I'm going to make a book about Iraqi refugees." It was, "I'm going to make a book about journalists and about how journalism works." I figured within the next five years or decade, the way journalism works wasn't going to change that drastically — and I don't think it has.
Those topics are still the same, but also I think that when it comes to the things that they were reporting on, and then that I was reporting on, the facts on the ground might have changed and those regions have changed — definitely, Syria has changed — but that doesn't mean that what they were reporting on then didn't happen. It still happened. Maybe it's less of-the-moment journalism, but it's still something that these people went through, and it's still a time in the history of that country that's important.
I think it's important to us as well because one of the reasons the journalists I was with wanted to report on Iraqi refugees was that this was already seven years after the invasion of Iraq and the U.S. had kind of moved on a little bit from that war. The war was winding down and Obama was elected, so there were just other things to think about. The fact is, for the people who were affected by that war over there, that stuff still mattered and was still important.
This is a very thoughtful book about both journalism and about that specific situation and I don't want to get too deep into process, but I do want to know how much of the finished book you had envisioned right after the trip, and how much of it came about in the process of writing and drawing?
There were certain moments that, as they were happening, I was like, "Oh this is definitely going to go in the book." Like the first page of the book was one of those moments were I was like, "Oh wow, this is a really strong moment. I definitely want this to be in [the book]." There were also some funny moments, like the second page of the book, where I thought, "Okay, this has got to go in there. It's just too good."
There were some things that happened that I had that same feeling, and then when you're working on the book you realize that they don't actually have a place there. Then you have to do the whole "kill your darlings" thing and let them go. The book took a long time, and it wasn't just because it takes a long time to draw and paint everything. That, for me, is some of the stuff that takes the least time.
Just sorting through all the material I had and figuring out how to tell this onion of stories — there's the story of the people reporting, and the stories that they’re reporting on, and then the stories of how those things interplay — that was a very complicated knot to untangle.
I was recording everything, so almost all of the dialogue in the book is from recordings that I took. The first year when I got home, I was really spending most of my time transcribing everything, because I thought that I needed to transcribe everything. I kind of needed to figure out what the voice of the book was going to be and how much my character was going to be in it. There was a whole part where we went to Lebanon and I cut that whole part out because it really, in the end, didn't have anything to do with the major themes of the book.
Are you more comfortable working in books as opposed to shorter pieces published in magazines and things like that?
I don't know about comfortable. This was a very uncomfortable thing to work on. A lot of it was material that felt almost over my head in a certain way. I felt at times like, "I'm not qualified to talk about journalism," or, "I'm not qualified to talk about the war in Iraq because I'm not an expert on these things." If you give yourself enough time, you can force yourself to talk about anything.
I do like working in short pieces, but, for me, length is really comfortable because you can go on and on. For me, doing like a two-page comic is the hardest thing because you have to get a whole bunch of information into a very short space and you don't want to put too much text in the panels because people's eyes get tired.
After working on this for so long, I feel like it's going to be a while before I start another book. I'm probably going to work in short pieces for a while now.
It's October 2016, so we've got to talk about the orange elephant in the room. Your book's about Syria and refugees and I wonder if you have any special perspective on the election and Donald Trump because of your experiences?
I will say that the thing that makes me the most angry that Trump says, and that a lot of other politicians on his side of things talk about, is using the refugee crisis to stoke people's fears about terrorism and saying things like, "We don't know who these people are and they're not vetted properly." It just makes my blood boil, because we spent a lot of time talking to refugees and talking to people at the United Nations about these refugees. I spent five years really looking into refugee law and how all that stuff works. Now I know that [what those politicians say is] the opposite of true. There's almost two years of vetting that refugees go through before they come here. They don't bring single men ever, they bring families or they bring widows. They bring the most vulnerable people first.
Really only 1 percent of registered refugees ever make it to the U.S. anyway. When I hear people using refugees to get people all riled up and afraid of terrorism, it's so sad to me because we should be letting more people in, not fewer people. We made all these promises to translators and people who worked with soldiers in Iraq, and we haven't let those people in yet. For me, that's my little tiny corner area of expertise when it comes to this election. When I hear Trump saying things about refugees, it makes me upset. The rest of it I feel like I have no control over whatsoever. I'm just going to fill out my ballot and mail it in and hope for the best, I guess.
One of the most striking scenes in the book for me is when you're all talking about protesting the war and you drew yourselves as younger protesters at an Iraq War protest. One of the things that you're talking about is whether you could have done more to stop this. With that in mind, I wonder if you think there's anything we could have done to have stopped this political situation we’re in right now?
I remember when we were protesting the war. [Globalist reporter] Sarah [Stuteville] and I had very different ideas about what were good protesting tactics. I would see people smashing windows and be like, "That's not good because that will make people think that we're bad. That's not helpful." Whereas she wasn't going to go out doing those things, but I think she understood better that we need lots of different kinds of tactics for protesting.
I think I've come over to that point of view a little more now as I get older and you have seen protests that work, like at the pipeline in North Dakota: people really getting in there and doing direct actions, and things happened because of that. At the time, I really was of the mind, "We did all we could. We went to protests." Who knows? There have been governments that have been toppled from people filling up a square. Just yesterday, Polish women all went on strike to reverse an abortion law.
Maybe we just didn't go far enough, I don't know. I do think that is the job of young people: I think the older you get, the less you can just leave your job and the more you think about whether this is a good idea or not. When you're in your early 20's or you're in high school, yeah, it is your job to go protest. And maybe a little bit later, you become a reporter.
Is your work going to continue to be focused on the Middle East or were the first two books just the way it happened to land?
It was kind of a coincidence. When I was working on [Glidden’s first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less], I talked to the Globalist — I said, "Next time, you guys, when I'm done with this book and it's your next trip, then we'll do it together." It just so happened that it was for this trip. If I had finished a little bit earlier, I probably would have gone with them to Pakistan. If it had been a little later, I would have gone with them — they did a journalism series in the Ukraine called “Generation Putin.” I would have gone on that trip if I had finished later. It just so happened that it was this trip.
I'm glad that I went, because from doing a book about Israel and Palestine, I did have a little bit of context for what we were seeing and who we were talking to. I think for my next works, I'm going to try to stick a little closer to home. I think there's plenty going on here.
You moved to Seattle last year — almost exactly this time last year I interviewed you for the Seattle Review of Books as a new Seattleite. I think it's been kind of a banner year for comics in Seattle, and you seem to be a big part of the community already. I was wondering if you could talk about your perspective as a newcomer?
We've been friends with [Short Run co-founder] Eroyn [Franklin] for also a really long time. So when I would come here and visit, Eroyn introduced me to the comics community. I remember one of my first visits here, I went to the Fantagraphics Store in Georgetown and I have a picture of me in front of the store with a little bag because I bought something inside. I was really excited because between Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly — Montreal and Seattle, those were the two indie comic centers.
When Eroyn started doing Short Run a couple years ago, I remember seeing it go from something small she was talking about to a festival that people who I knew, who didn't know them, were talking about — and they were talking about it being one of their favorite shows.
It was exciting coming here and getting involved with that. I'm on the board now so I got to help them figure out which international guests to bring. It's been nice coming to a new place, but feeling like you have a community and that you're helping be a part of it.
It’s a good thing that there’s Short Run because otherwise you might not see other cartoonists. It's a job where you're sitting at home, usually, and you're working alone. I was working on this book until March or April and there was a couple months there where I couldn't go out at all. I think it's good that there's something like Short Run that makes these events — not just the festival, but also there's Summer School and stuff like that — because otherwise I think cartoonists are prone to just staying inside and not socializing very much.
When you lived in New York, you were part of Pizza Island, a cartooning community, and pretty much everyone from that group is sort of blowing up now: Kate Beaton and Lisa Hanawalt and Julia Wertz. Did you feel like it was something special at the time? It's almost like a rock group, going off in your own directions. And if that analogy is correct, are you Wings?
It really did feel special. I think we kind of knew it. It happened by chance: I was friends with Julia first and then we got to know Lisa when she moved to New York and Domitille [Collardey] was — you know, she came from France, and she was dating a musician that I knew. Then I got to know her and then at that time, we decided just to get a studio.
We kind of knew Kate from around the way and Kate knew Meredith [Gran], so we all ended up together. I don't think we really understood how special it was until people started writing articles about us. I think people made a big deal out of it being an all-female cartoonist studio. We didn't go out to make an all-female studio, it just happened that everybody was a woman.
It was a really magical thing. I kind of thought, "Oh this is just what a shared studio is like." I've had shared studios since then that have been major disappointments because [with Pizza Island] there was a certain chemistry there. Everybody was doing really amazing work, but everyone's work was really different so it didn't feel competitive. It didn't feel like you were looking over your shoulder and thinking, "How did she get that and I didn't?" Because, well, it's obvious — she's doing that thing and I'm doing this.
It was really inspiring and it was very motivating. It's sad that it only lasted a couple years. Basically none of us could afford to stay in New York anymore and now two of them are in L.A. and Kate is back in Canada and I think Meredith is the only one left in New York. I don't know, if any cartoonists want to start a new studio, I'd be willing to give it a shot — even though it will probably never be Pizza Island. But who knows?
[AUDIENCE QUESTION] I love the style of your work and to me it's very much a documentary illustration. As someone who can also appreciate how drawing someone speaking over six panels can get really repetitive, what would you do to break up that repetition? Did you find yourself working on other projects in between things or would you bounce around from chapter to chapter to take care of that?
Well, that was really hard. That was one of the big challenges of this book because it was a book about the process of journalism. The process of journalism is a lot of sitting around in rooms talking. Someone like Joe Sacco — the process is in there, but it's really about the people's stories, so he can really illustrate what they went through.
I do a little bit of that in the book — like I do some flashbacks — but I didn't do a lot of that because I wanted to keep the focus on the process of journalism. I worried a ton. If I had more than three pages of people sitting and talking and going back from head to head, I started sweating.
Actually, my husband would tell me, "You worry about that too much. It'll be fine." And now I think that it is. It's good to think about that stuff and try to make sure you're not having 20 pages of people taking, but if what they're talking about is interesting, and I hope that it is, then I think that it's all right.
Some cartoonist once said that there should be a drawing of a foot on every page. I don't adhere to that rule completely, but I like the idea that you can vary things a little bit. You can zoom out a little and show the setting the people are sitting in, and kind of give an idea of this space. A lot of times I'll show the details of a room while someone is talking. You can also change camera angles and stuff like that. As far as whether I was working on other things: I was for the first couple years while I was working on this book, but that was more because I didn't want to work on the book because it was hard.
[AUDIENCE QUESTION:] It strikes me that you were there six years ago, and you’re drawing all these drawings and you have to remember what the material environment looked like while you were there. How do you keep that in your mind?
I take a lot of photos. When I go on a trip like this, I'm taking pictures constantly. I do have a sketchbook and that's mostly for taking notes. I'm recording and then if someone's making some weird gesture, I'll write down that he's flailing around madly. But then I'll also be taking a lot of pictures because it's really important to me that the setting looks real.
[Points to the image on the cover of Rolling Blackouts] This is Sulaymaniyah in Iraq. I posted a picture of this cover and a guy I know who's from there recognized it, and that's what I really want. I want people to really feel like this is a specific place.
That means not just cityscapes, but it also means if you're in a restaurant, the certain type of plastic chairs that are there and what the lighting looks like. Anytime when I can't use a camera like a border crossings or something more intimate like interview situations, I would be drawing — like furiously drawing — floor plans and stuff to kind of get that right.
There's a lot that you can hear in a recording when it comes to how someone's mood is. And you're observing them and you're observing body language as it's happening, so then when you listen back to people talking, you can kind of think, "Oh yeah, I remember how they move, I remember she was going like this [makes waving gestures] when she said that."
It is really weird spending five or six years on two months. For my first book too, it was two weeks of time and I spent three years on it. It's this strange extending of time, and you remember moments because you keep forming that memory over and over again. I don't remember what I did in the two months after I got back. I actually have no idea.
Do you find you have a better idea of what details are important when you go into a space as a reporter now or do you still just soak everything up as a sponge and figure out what's important later?
I do, although there's still always the photo that you wish you had taken that you didn't: “I cannot believe I didn't take a picture of the front of that building.” Now I kind of think about that a little bit more when I'm reporting.
I did a comic over the summer about Jill Stein. I followed her around on the campaign trail, and there were still things like threads that I was following that I thought were going to be really important. Then I'm like, "Why did I waste all my time talking to that guy? That didn't make it in at all." It was just actually a distraction. As you get more experience as a journalist, maybe that gets easier, but I think a lot of the deciding what goes in the story happens after you get back and you have a little bit of distance from it.
“By autobiography, we meant daydreams, nightdreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture; the self as collaboration, the self as disintegration, the gaps, inconsistencies, and distortions of the self; the enjambments of power, family, history, and language.”
In Communal Nude: Collected Essays, this is one of the ways Robert Glück introduces New Narrative, a term he coined with Bruce Boone and Steve Abbott in the late 1970s to describe a form of prose writing emerging in the San Francisco Bay Area as a response to Language poetry and its formalist obsession with breaking apart (and breaking down) voice and context to interrogate the ways that words generate meaning. New Narrative writers included Glück, Boone, and Abbott, as well as Camille Roy, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Mike Amnasan, Francesca Rosa, and Sam D’Allesandro—they admired the intellectual rigor of the Language poets, and the social worlds they created around their work, but wondered if this wasn’t just another straight-male dominated purity campaign.
New Narrative opened language up, but by addition rather than subtraction. New Narrative writers reveled in the excesses of voice—in sexual and romantic obsession, in gay and queer longing, in contradiction, gossip, pop culture, self-representation, shame, shamelessness, and all the possibilities and limitations of the body. Embracing the tangent, the non sequitur, and the nonlinear ramble, these writers refused to distinguish between fiction and autobiography, questioning texts in the process of creating them, and in the process creating other texts. Borrowing from the ideas of Marxism, New York School and Berkeley Renaissance poets, European critical theory, gay liberation, camp, and the dreams, schemes, and themes of their own relationships with one another, New Narrative writers rejected the conventional realism of mainstream fiction and the rigidity of the prevailing challenges to its reign.
New Narrative writing refused to separate the analytical from the personal, the societal from the intimate, the professional from the homemade, and Communal Nude is emblematic of these tenets. The book functions not just as an analysis of New Narrative, but as Glück’s informal autobiography through immersion in the work of others. The pieces in the book range from long-form essays to short rants, diary entries, introductory notes, lectures, art criticism, book reviews, and mini-biographies. It’s a historical scrapbook, and a literary collage.
“I am interested in writing that explores our pervasive sense of marginality, our loss of meaning and value, and the reconstruction of meaning and value,” Glück writes in Communal Nude, and here I talk to him about these lofty goals.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: You describe your writing practice as “theory-based,” but I think that, by centering the body and its needs, desires, and limitations, your writing is an antidote to the disembodiment of most theory. Is this part of your intention?
Robert Glück: The word theory conveys rigor, does it not? — so perhaps it’s misleading. Believe me, by the time I understand something, anyone can. I pillage theory — it interests me only when it gives me access to my own experience. Usually that does not mean whole systems of thought, often just a line or two. Except for Georges Bataille, who taught me so much. If you ever wonder what is the connection between death and sex, read Eroticism.
In a way, I think you’re making theory unnecessary by opening up the possibilities for embodied experience through writing—and, writing through embodied experience.
I guess my idea is to address the complexity of experience, not to make it add up. I gathered together the New Narrative essays in this book so they would all be in one place, but there are also essays on Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, the best lube to use, Georges Bataille, Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, essays on gardens, on certain artists, gay mid-life, Yoko Ono, O.J. Simpson….
You write, “The book becomes social practice that is lived.” In this way, you view writing as both an individual and collective process, a way to articulate and question the self, and a tool for community-building. What are the risks of this type of writing?
I wish I could put more risk into writing. I want a novel to be like performance art, where the audience and the performer share real time, where nakedness and disclosure are irreversible.
So when you say “the self is a collaborative project,” you’re challenging the narrow individualism of contemporary US politics.
Seeing the self as collaboration allows me to climb out of the box of psychology, where so much fiction is located. I can enter the intimacies of the body, so close the observations become general — it is thirst speaking, lust speaking. I can pull back into long shots that take in history, politics, the largest matter. I can do this and never abandon the precious fate of my dear characters, because I have added, not subtracted. We are either threadbare codes or larger, more porous, more glorious beings than most fiction wants to recognize.
You’re more interested in revealing contradictions than smoothing them out, and this strikes me as a loyalty to truth-telling not based on conventional middle-class norms. Is the dismantling of middle-class respectability part of your goal in writing?
I am happy if the sofa matches the drapes, but I don’t think literature should. I may set out to shock for the fun of it — why not? — but mostly I want to articulate as much of an experience as I can in as many different registers as possible, and that sometimes means saying more than is comfortable even to me. I want to say what is impossible to say because we don’t yet have a language to describe it.
In divulging your secrets, you invoke a sense of play in both writing and living, thinking and dreaming. Is there a tension between this ideal, and its practice?
I imagine there would be if I understood which was which. What is the ideal? Pouring a cup of tea for a friend? Having a job that is not alienated? Cooking a dinner with food that is nutritious and tasty?
It seems like one of your strategies in these essays is to resist closure, not just in the conventional sense, but even in terms of the very act of looking back at an essay to synthesize its meaning or impact. The final lines of the essays rarely force us to reassess the rest, and in this way they function more like conversations or monologues. Is this your intent?
Well, it’s probably just the way I think and move through the world. I am always reconsidering, re-deciding, remaking a plan. No decision is firm. No plan is final. It is sometimes very frustrating for my lover and for my publishers.
I love the prison journal you wrote after being arrested at an antinuclear protest in 1983, and held with 450 other male protesters in a tent at the Santa Rita jail for 10 days, while close to 800 female protesters were held in a nearby tent. While in general you point to desire as the formative impulse toward gay community, in this case it seems like you found a temporary community formed by the desire for change. Is there a contradiction between these two impulses?
What a good question! That essay is about negotiating my loneliness and longing in a tent with 450 men. I hope that desire for love and desire for change can go together. Certainly the best thinkers on the left wanted that. [Antonio] Gramsci felt that for a progressive movement to be viable, we should be able to find everything in it—culture, love, friendship. Not just a set of political goals, but also tuba bands. Could I substitute a bathhouse, or the broad smegmatic river that is Men Seeking Men on craigslist, for those tuba bands?
You say that, in the 1970s, gay community, “was not destroyed by commodity culture, which was destroying so many other communities; instead, it was founded in commodity culture.” Do you think that the intervening four decades of gay immersion in consumer culture have now destroyed genuine structures of community?
Well, a community can be three strangers sharing an expression in an elevator. There is never not gay community. It may have migrated to the internet and social media, but what hasn’t? Or is it honeymooning in Niagara Falls? After bemoaning our preoccupation with society’s most oppressive institutions, marriage and the army, I did marry my Catalan partner, and this new civil right allows us to stay together in Sweden, where we live.
I’m sure you also agree that marriage shouldn’t be the only way to obtains rights that everyone should have access to.
I hope gay marriage will do exactly what its opponents fear — that is, change the institution. I can’t see why marriage should be limited to two people. Why not marry your dog, your toaster?
Toaster marriage would definitely function intrinsically as a critique, so I will toast to that. Some would argue that the assimilationist direction of gay politics became dominant in part due to social ostracism exacerbated by the AIDS crisis, and the drive by some gay men to appear “healthy” by conforming to straight norms. In a book that functions as an informal history, not just of your own life, but of gay culture, community-building, and creative practice over the last four decades or so, AIDS is a theme that only emerges occasionally. Was this intentional?
Nothing was intentional! It’s difficult to explain. AIDS shrank my writing horizon, Steve Abbott, Sam D’Allesandro, Bo Huston, editor George Stambolian, and a generation of queer readers as well [died due to AIDS-related causes]. Meanwhile I was doing anti-nuke work and anti-interventionist work with a gay affinity group. AIDS was personal. It meant driving my friend Ed to the hospital, watching movies with him in his bedroom, organizing a memorial, writing an obituary.
You’re now writing your “version of an AIDS memoir”—what does this look like?
The book is called About Ed. It takes me a long while to bring subject matter into fiction. Though what became the first section was originally published as “Everyman” in 1992. So you could say I have been thinking about AIDS steadily. I am glad it took me so long—now I am an old man playing with skulls. My own death was not part of the mix twenty-five years ago.
Ed Aulerich-Sugai was a Japanese-American artist and we were lovers during our twenties. Ed was a sexual mountain climber, a real explorer. Also he was a great dreamer—he could relate his dreams back through the night. The first section of About Ed is the day Ed was diagnosed. The second is his illness, his death, my mourning, and our life together in the seventies. The third is a fantasia of his dreams. I’m working on that now. I want the novel to be refracted through his dreams. I read twenty years of his dream journals to get him inside me. It was a very strange experience — for example, sometimes I would run into myself, always disappointing as it is for any eavesdropper. And do I really have Ed inside me? — or have his dreams given a shape to a feeling called Ed that was already there?
You write, “I take it as a given that the well-modulated distance of mainstream fiction is a system that contains and represses social conflict, and that one purpose of experimental work is to break open this system.” I agree wholeheartedly, but I wonder if experimental work often fails at this purpose by remaining willfully insular, a commodity for elite consumption. How can writers and other artists challenge this form of disengagement?
Like you, I write exactly what I want — not as simple as it sounds — and I put everything into it. Each new book is impossible — I am not fully engaged until I have made a book impossible to write. I’m not smart enough, I’m not skillful enough, not sufficiently empathetic—really I have to become a different person in order to write it, and I do. As for so-called difficult writing, well, usually writing is difficult not because there is a puzzle to unlock, but because the sense of time and representation is different from the reader’s expectations, yet it may be what we actually experience, and what we already accept in a painting or even a music video.
We experimentalists are so lucky — we are always emerging! We emerge till the day we die. I’ll put “Still Emerging” on my gravestone, if I have one.